By Liam Lodge (@Liam66NFL)
We have reached the business end in one of the strangest college football seasons ever.
Fans all over the world should give themselves a (socially distanced) pat on the back. It’s been tough. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire year and made for a very difficult sporting ride this season; with varying degrees of schedules in terms of length, the starting dates for Conferences had to be placed all over the calendar.
Now, after all the struggles with postponements and cancellations, each Conference has made it to the end of its 2020 journey in the same weekend. It’s time for the Conference Championships!
Time to take a quick look at the teams who have made it this far and a preview of each title game in chronological order. Kickoff times are UK time. Note the midnight KO at the start, so the first three games here are technically Friday night for us in the UK.
Conference USA Championship – Saturday, 19th December (12:00 AM)
UAB at Marshall – Both teams have had a few recent game cancellations that have helped to seal their places here. UAB (5-3) will travel to face the Marshall Thundering Herd (7-1) as underdogs. The Blazers have just 1 win in the last 3, the most recent loss was their only in-conference defeat, albeit coming in double-overtime at Louisiana Tech. UAB’s offense is lead mainly by the run game and defensively they have kept opponents to 20 points or less more often than not.
Marshall boasts a solid defensive unit that ranks top of the entire FBS in points allowed with 11.4 per game and is also second in yards allowed (253.9). Despite this, the team blotched an unbeaten season with a bad 20-0 defeat at home to Rice last time out, in fact Marshall’s last win was over a month ago.
Keys To Victory – UAB have to play to their strengths on offense and run that ball! Yes, Marshall’s defense has proved strong, but keeping the ball moving on the ground will be key as UAB’s leading receiver Austin Watkins Jr. has opted out to prepare for the draft, making it difficult for the Blazers to gain through the air. Defensively they must create pressure on the quarterback as turnovers can be had.
Marshall will want to make sure QB Grant Wells does not have the 5-interception game he had last time out in their only defeat. Protect him and keep the scoreboard rolling on offense and the Thundering Herd defense will take over and do the rest; it feels like a race to 21. The title game will be in their control if they stop UAB’s run game. And they are very capable of doing so.
My Pick – Marshall.
MAC Championship – Saturday, 19th December (12:30 AM)
Ball State vs Buffalo – I’ve said a few times that for a couple of years the MAC has been all about running backs. On our first episode of the Full10Yards CFB scouting podcast (if you’ve not heard it, why not?!), which was all about RBs, two of us picked guys from the MAC as our favourite sleepers – one from Ball State and one from Buffalo. And now we get Ball State (5-1) against Buffalo (5-0) for the Conference Championship.
The difference between the two players? Ball State’s Caleb Huntley has opted out, while Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson remains for the game. That’s a big advantage to the Buffalo Bulls, whose offense has averaged a huge 51.8 points per game this season.
Keys To Victory – Ball State have felt the absence of Huntley, but quarterback Drew Plitt has been efficient throughout their winning run up to this point. If he continues to do what he has been doing he will cause the Bulls some problems. On defense, all Ball State has to do is stop Patterson, who has over 1,000 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns to his name from 5 games… Good luck!
Buffalo will feel their defense can match up with Ball State. The pass rush will be out to chase Plitt and get him out of rhythm. Sack leader Malcolm Koonce is headed for April’s NFL draft and will be perhaps the most talented player on the field in this one. Of course, there’s the aforementioned run game; Patterson has put up those numbers even while coming out of some games early to rest and I see him having another big one and earning his team a title.
My Pick – Buffalo.
Pac-12 Championship – Saturday, 19th December (1:00 AM)
Oregon at #13 USC – The Pac-12 has been hugely affected by the pandemic. Oregon (3-2) come into this as the reigning Conference Champs, but on a 2-game losing streak and as replacements for a Washington program so pandemic-hit that they do not have enough healthy personnel to play.
The unbeaten USC Trojans (5-0) have been the best all-round team out west and will feel victory keeps their very slim College Football Playoff chances alive.
Keys To Victory – The teams match up closely on paper. Oregon will need to work on keeping a hold of the lead when they find themselves in front. In the last two games the Ducks slipped to defeat first by letting Oregon State score 22 fourth-quarter points, then last week didn’t score a single second half point and allowed the university of California to come back and beat them. Going run-first on offense looks like a good idea.
USC have a great bunch of wide receivers who have made plays all season. Against an Oregon secondary that is missing a few notable players due to opt-outs, I think the Trojans will be able to get quarterback Kedon Slovis moving the ball in the passing game. In a Conference that usually self-destructs and the teams constantly beat each other, USC have a great opportunity to run the table.
My Pick – USC.
Big Ten Championship – Saturday, 19th December (5:00 PM)
#14 Northwestern vs #4 Ohio State – One of the first games on Saturday afternoon should be a really good watch. Northwestern (6-1) have been one of the stories of the season in earning their way into the Big Ten title game against the odds. Many of the wins have been close and the Wildcats have used a tough defensive unit (second in the country in points allowed per game) to grind out the results.
Ohio State (5-0) have played just a handful of games, a total that by rule would not have been enough for them to be eligible for a Championship place, but the Big Ten rather controversially voted to allow the Buckeyes the opportunity. Right or wrong, the decision means that we will get to see the best two teams in the Big Ten facing each other. It should really cause a stir if this leads to Ohio State making the College Football Playoff.
Keys To Victory – Northwestern have built an identity this season and will try and stick to the game plan. The defense is not only strong in points allowed, but also ranks highly versus both the pass and the run. They will view Ohio State’s potent offense as the ultimate challenge. When in possession Northwestern need mistake-free offensive football; move the ball well on each drive, use the clock to their advantage and make sure to put points on the board whenever they can.
Ohio State will not want to get sucked into a close game. They have the weapons on offense to get out in front and move away. It will be a good battle between quarterback Justin Fields and the opposing secondary, I expect Fields’ efficient season to continue and that he will find his receivers often enough. The Buckeyes D also has the talent to make a difference in this one. They should be capable of stopping the Wildcats and giving Fields and co. the opportunities to score a bunch of points.
My Pick – Ohio State.
Big XII Championship – Saturday, 19th December (5:00 PM)
#10 Oklahoma vs #6 Iowa State – The teams atop the Big XII have done a good job of beating each other throughout this shortened season. Oklahoma (7-2) have gone on a six-game winning streak to get here, while Iowa State (8-2) also lost a couple early (only 1 in-conference loss) and are riding a five-game winning run of their own. The two sides match up well with both rosters showing good young talent, especially on the offenses. One thing to remember is Iowa State beat Oklahoma 37-30 earlier in the campaign.
Keys To Victory – The Oklahoma Sooners will look to get the pass game going early. Redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler heads an offense that has become the top passing unit in the Big XII and has improved as the year has gone on. Watch out for Rattler to hook up with his favourite target Marvin Mims in search of touchdowns. The Sooners defense has been good against the run, and it will need to be as Iowa State will field one of the best young RBs around in Breece Hall.
The Cyclones defense will be working on stopping the pass in order to be Conference Champs; it’s all about slowing down Rattler, who can be rattled! On the other side of the ball that run game vs run defense of Oklahoma will be a key battle. Hall’s performance could be the difference for Iowa State to cap off a really good season.
My Pick – Oklahoma
Sun Belt Championship – Saturday, 19th December (8:30 PM)
#19 Louisiana at #12 Coastal Carolina – If you have been a regular listener to the Full10Yards CFB podcast throughout this season (if not, why not?!) you would have heard our increasing support for the 11-0 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who became one of the teams of the year in 2020. They are such an improved program and now having stormed through the Sun Belt, their nice teal field was ready to host the Conference Championship.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (9-1) had a great run of their own. Their only loss was on the road to Coastal early in the season, 30-27 on a last-second field goal. Louisiana were capable of avenging that game and this was sure to be an exciting, high scoring affair.
UPDATE – You may have noticed I was referring to this game in the past tense. At time of press for this article, the Sun Belt Championship has been CANCELLED due to a positive COVID-19 test within the Coastal Carolina team. Louisiana and Coastal Carolina will be recognised as co-champs. A frustrating end all round to the Sun Belt.
ACC Championship – Saturday, 19th December (9:00 PM)
#3 Clemson vs #2 Notre Dame – Picking just one game to watch this weekend? This is it. Who would have thought placing the famously independent Notre Dame in a Conference would lead to this exciting culmination. The Fighting Irish (10-0) are in the box seat in terms of the College Football Playoff picture, the Clemson Tigers’ (9-1) only loss was 40-47 to Notre Dame in a double-overtime match over a month ago. A second loss most likely knocks them out of Playoff contention. Trevor Lawrence is back having missed the first encounter. ND’s defense will be looking forward to playing him. All the ingredients are here for a classic.
Keys To Victory – Notre Dame needs to be effective on offense; the strong O line needs to turn up and protect quarterback Ian Book and help the running backs who have been good all year, namely Kyren Williams who has over 1,000 yards. Both defenses have looked strong, but I think ND’s is slightly better and was the key to victory in that first win.
Clemson will be confident in the passing game, which hasn’t missed a beat all season, even in Lawrence’s absence. Star rusher Travis Etienne will need to be better than he was versus the Irish last time; he’ll have something to prove before he enters the draft. The Tigers defense will also expect more. Clemson are not going to let Notre Dame show up in the ACC and win it easily.
My Pick – Clemson.
Mountain West Championship – Saturday, 19th December (9:15 PM)
Boise State vs #24 San Jose State – A show of appreciation for San Jose State. The Spartans (6-0) sit at the top of the Mountain West following a great season. Air Force, San Diego State, Hawaii and Nevada would all have been more highly rated at the start of the year. San Jose State has beaten all of them and are now one win away from an against-all-odds title victory, which would be their first ever. The final obstacle? Mountain West powerhouse Boise State (5-1, 5-0 in-conference).
Keys To Victory – The Boise State Broncos have been able to score lots of points throughout most of the season, with passing efficiency being the key factor. Passing often when in possession has to be a big part of the game plan here. The defense will have to step up compared to it’s season average against the run.
San Jose State has been good in all areas; the offense has moved the ball well and the defense has been solid. Former Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel is the starter in 2020 and has posted a nice stat line for the season. Watch out for running back Tyler Nevens who is on good form and faces a suspect Broncos run D. The majority would make Boise State favourites to win another Championship. I’m going with the underdogs.
My Pick – San Jose State
Note the KO times of these last two games, these are Saturday night/Sunday morning for us in the UK.
AAC Championship – Sunday, 20th December (1:00 AM)
#23 Tulsa at #9 Cincinnati – Tulsa (6-1) were set to host Cincinnati (8-0) only a week ago. With the game cancelled the two sides just had to wait an extra week having both sealed their respective places here in the AAC Championship. The difference to last week is that Tulsa now have to travel to Cincinnati, but will like their chances of causing the Bearcats some problems.
Cincinnati will be favourites after a really strong unbeaten season in which the offense averaged over 40 points per game and the defense allowed 15 per game on average. That’s how you do it.
Keys To Victory – The Tulsa Golden Hurricane is going to have to find a way to blow down a concrete wall of a defense in this match. The passing needs to be at it’s best when facing Cincinnati’s stout secondary. Tulsa’s defense has some talent of its own, look out for linebacker Zaven Collins to spy Cincy QB Desmond Ridder, that should be a good head-to-head.
Ridder will be the focal point of the Bearcats’ offense; he can make plays throwing the ball and as a runner. Cincinnati has strong depth at running back and can control a game on the ground. From front to back the defense has also been able to take over given the chance. Before the season started, I picked Cincy to win the AAC. I didn’t think they would be this good though.
My Pick – Cincinnati.
SEC Championship – Sunday, 20th December (1:00 AM)
#1 Alabama vs #7 Florida – At the beginning of the SEC season, I wrote a preview article for Full10Yards and predicted Alabama (10-0) would win all 10 of their Conference matches. Well, Nick Saban’s team have only gone and done it! I also predicted that Florida (8-2) would be their Conference Championship opponents with a record of 8-2. Perhaps I DO know what I’m talking about! I digress…
The Alabama Crimson Tide have powered their way through the schedule. Thrashing the opposition within the Conference and are the best team in college football. There is star quality and difference makers all over the roster; with the large margins the Tide are consistently winning games by, it feels as though this team is a little underappreciated. It goes to show it’s all about success in the College Football Playoff.
Florida let their Playoff hopes slip away with an upset defeat at home to LSU last week. Not the best of preparations for this one. The offense has the personnel to give the ‘Bama defenders their toughest assignments yet this season.
Keys To Victory – Alabama have the quality to win and remain unbeaten. If the players perform and stay disciplined, they should be able to pull away. Quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith will be looking to connect and test the Gators secondary as often as possible. Do not forget how good the Najee Harris-lead run game is too. As mentioned, the Tide defenders will need to concentrate as they will be tested by the weapons Florida has in its passing game.
Florida will be big underdogs and cannot afford any mistakes. The Gators D likes to blitz, but that will leave them vulnerable to ‘Bama’s deep passes so they cannot bring as much pressure as the normally do. The secondary will have to take a few chances. When the Gators have the ball, tight end Kyle Pitts will be the go-to target for QB Kyle Trask. Pitts needs a strong performance in order for Florida to put up the points they’ll need to make a game of this.
My Pick – Alabama.
Title Photo Credit – CBS46.com