Welcome to Conference Championship Week, where the winners advance to the College Football Playoff — sometimes.
Sorry, Virginia, your reward — if somehow you pull off an upset of defending national champ Clemson in the ACC championship game — probably won’t even be a trip to New Year’s Day bowl. (Due to an accounting move, the Orange Bowl will be played Dec. 30 this year).
I know that’s not how it works in men’s basketball or lacrosse, or even in football at EVERY OTHER LEVEL. (Good luck against Monmouth, James Madison.)
The sport with the best regular season and most unwieldy postseason enters its cocoon stage. Don’t worry, you loved the three-month caterpillar, and you’re going to enjoy the Championship Game butterfly next month. Bear with them. First, we get a slate of exhibitions that will determine which school gets into the New Orleans (Sun Belt Conference) or the Las Vegas (Mountain West Conference) bowls.
Conference USA’s winner gets to pick from a group of games if they’re not the “Group of Five” team, while the MAC and AAC send schools to bowls based partially on geography (meaning the schools competing might already know their destination regardless of Saturday’s result).
Then the curtains close and the 13-member committee determines which four schools advance, and the dust settles on the rest of the 41 bowls. (Forty-one, really?) To take even more air out of the ball, Ohio State and LSU are expected to make the playoff even if they lose their respective conference title tilts. There are those that want an eight-team playoff (I am one of them), and with five schools in the “Power Five” it almost makes too much sense.
But just like we had to sit through 20 years of the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series, we’ve got the current system for a few years more. You can always break out the cocktail napkins and do fantasy fields of eight-team brackets like I do.
Pac 12: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon, 8 p.m., Santa Clara, California (ABC)
What’s at stake: A potential playoff berth for the Utes if things drop right, or further proof that this league eats its own if the Ducks prevail.
Rematch? The two schools didn’t play this year, although the Utes won the 2018 match-up in Salt Lake City 32-25.
Players to watch: Utah defensive end Bradley Anae brings 12.5 sacks to the Bay Area, and his goal is to disrupt Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (67% completion rate; 3,140 passing yards with a 31-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio).
Fun Fact: The South Division is 1-7, with the lone victory coming when the South representative is the higher ranked team. That’s the case this year.
Presto’s Pick: Utes make their case with a 35-30 win. Will it fall on deaf ears?
Big 12: No 6. Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor, 12 p.m., Arlington, Texas (ABC)
What’s at stake: In theory, this should be for an automatic berth in a six- or eight-team playoff field. Instead, the winner won’t even have a head start against Utah for “Who’s No. 4?” if the Utes win the night before. And heaven forbid if Georgia somehow wins against LSU. …
Rematch: OU trailed 28-3 in Waco on Nov. 16 before dialing up a rally for the ages, storming back for a 34-31 win and clinching the game by intercepting a Baylor pass in the last minute.
Players to watch: Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts picked up where Kyler Murray left off, one year after Murray picked up where Baker Mayfield left off. In other news, I am seriously thinking about transferring to Oklahoma in the offseason. The Bears rely on the pass as well, but when they run, John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty average over six yards per carry.
Fun Fact: Oklahoma is 9-1 in this game, with its only defeat coming in 2003 when, as the top-ranked team in the nation, they were blasted 35-7 by Kansas State. Ell Robertston is not walking through that door.
Presto’s Pick: Sooners stir up the pot with a 41-22 whipping.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt (UAB vs. Florida Atlantic), Conference USA (Louisiana vs. Appalachian State), MAC (Miami vs. Central Michigan), AAC (Cincinnati vs. Memphis), and Mountain West (Boise State vs. Hawaii) will play all of their games in the early to midafternoon shadows. These conference championship games have no playoff implications whatsoever, although the AAC champ and Boise State have shots at being the “group of five” team that plays in a “New Year’s six” bowl. If the Big 12 game is a blowout, run your holiday errands at this time.
SEC: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia, 4 p.m., Atlanta (CBS)
What’s at stake: If the Bulldogs win, they’re in. Alabama’s loss to Auburn makes LSU’s playoff inclusion a near-certainty, further cementing the college football theory that “every game matters.”
Rematch? The two schools last met in 2018, when the Tigers tore through the Bulldogs 36-16.
Players to watch: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (78% completion rate with 4,366 yards passing and 44 touchdowns) is the Heisman Trophy favorite. Georgia running back D’Andre Swift rushed for 1,203 yards but is bothered by a shoulder injury.
Fun Fact: This will be the fourth meeting in this game between these two schools, making it the second-most-common matchup (Alabama and Florida have played for the title nine times).
Presto’s Pick: Tigers triumph, 24-16.
ACC: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia, 7:30 p.m., Charlotte, North Carolina (ABC)
What’s at stake: The unbeaten team nobody’s talking about looks to cement its spot after playing an underwhelming schedule, while the Cavaliers look to continue an incredible year that saw men’s basketball and lacrosse teams win national championships. An upset would likely also pull the Tigers out of the playoff.
Rematch? The longtime conference foes haven’t met since November of 2013, a day in Charlottesville when Clemson won 59-10. For the record, Kippy and Buffy enjoyed a Chateau O’Brien Malbec that day during the pregame tailgate: “a medium-bodied wine with complex aromas of plum and fig, a velvety soft texture, and remarkable fruit flavor,” or as other expert tasting notes read, “Big Boat.”
Players to watch: Tigers running back Travis Etienne averaged over eight yards per carry while posting seven 100-yard rushing games; he’d have better numbers but sat out a lot of second-half blowouts. While Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins wore the Superman’s cape all year, their linebacking corps deserves notice: Zane Zandier (team-high 85 tackles), Jordan Mack (7.5 sacks), Noah Taylor (6.5 sacks with two interceptions) and Charles Snowden will have one tough task Saturday.
Fun Fact: Kippy and Buffy make their way to Charlotte, and it’s not just a first-ever Coastal Division crown they’re celebrating. Fellow alums Henry and Hildy live in the Ballantyne neighborhood, and Hildy was just made partner at her law firm. So a bottle of Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Late Harvest Tannat will be opened at the tailgate; it’s a non-fortified Port-style wine. “During ripening, natural sugar accumulation reaches a level beyond the capacity of a natural yeast fermentation. No wine language can eloquently articulate the elegance of this wine.” We’ll go with “Big Boat.”
Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers are going to need a bigger boat, getting blasted 44-17.
Big Ten: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, 8 p.m., Indianapolis (FOX)
What’s at stake: Like LSU in the SEC, the Buckeyes are likely headed to the Playoff barring a 40-point loss. The Badgers can tie OSU with a third victory in the nine-year-old title game.
Rematch? You bet. The Buckeyes bludgeoned the Badgers 38-7 in Columbus back on Oct. 26. J.K. Dobbins, despite sounding like a character from a Charles Dickens story, rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns in the rout.
Players to watch: Ohio State’s Chase Young posted four of his 16.5 sacks this season against Wisconsin during the October win; one assumes they’ll have a better plan for him this time. Jonathan Taylor might have led the Big Ten with 1,761 yards rushing, but he was held to 52 yards on 20 tries by the Buckeyes D in October.
Fun Fact: Michigan has appeared in as many Big Ten Football Championship games as Maryland and Rutgers.
Presto’s Pick: Buckeyes bring it, 31-10.
Last Week: 2-1. I picked U.Va. the last two years and swore I wouldn’t again until they beat the Hokies. Congratulations.