Presto’s Picks: Bronco says bye to Virginia and college football, we say hi to conference championship weekend

Six years ago Virginia and Virginia Tech hired new football coaches. While the Hokies enjoyed early success under Justin Fuente (the 2016 Coastal Division title and a 19-8 record in 2016-17) the Cavaliers appeared to be the school building slowly but surely (from 2-10 to 6-7 to 8-5 to 9-5 and a Coastal crown in 2019) behind Bronco Mendenhall.

But less than one month after Virginia Tech dismisses Fuente, Mendenhall announces he will step down at Virginia after the Cavaliers’ upcoming bowl game.

Mendenhall in a conference call with reporters said Thursday that his departure was his decision to end a tenure that had turned around a sagging program (three bowl appearances in his tenure after two trips the previous 10 years), citing the need to “step back from college football and reassess, renew, reframe and reinvent — with my wife as a partner — our future and the next chapter of our lives.” While the coach moves on (and at 55-years old he said he was not retiring and did not rule out returning to the sidelines at some point) his program unexpectedly enters the hiring market. Their last three hires included a Group of Five coach in Mendenhall, an FCS coach in Mike London, and an NFL coach in Al Groh. Each had their moments of success and each had issues beating Virginia Tech. The new search began Thursday.

Meanwhile, it’s conference championship weekend! Prepare yourself for high-leverage games followed by a Sunday of rankings, playoff selection, and learning new names to bowls you didn’t even know exist (the Fenway and LA Bowls debut this season). Let the games before the games begin!

Pac 12 Championship: No. 10 Oregon (10-2) vs. No. 14 Utah (9-3), Friday night at 8 p.m., ABC.

What’s at stake: With both teams out of the Playoff race, the winner will have to settle for an old-fashioned Rose Bowl berth.

Previous Meeting: The Utes ended the Ducks playoff hopes Nov. 20 with a 38-7 rout as a 78-yard punt return to end the first half gave Utah a 28-0 lead at intermission.

Players to Watch: Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown threw 15 touchdown passes while running for nine scores. Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd tallied 100 tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions this fall.

Fun Fact: The North Division is 9-1 in this game, with seven of those wins coming by double digits (and four by 20+ points).

Presto’s Pick: Ducks exact revenge, 31-28.

Saturday’s Games:

Big 12 Championship: No. 5 Oklahoma State (11-1) vs. No. 9 Baylor (10-2), noon, ABC.

What’s at stake: For the Cowboys, a chance to crash the playoff party. For the Bears, the opportunity to play spoiler. Either way each school might remind everyone they beat future former conference foes Texas and Oklahoma this fall.

Previous Meeting: Oklahoma State won a battle of unbeatens this past Oct. 24-14. The Cowboys are 19-7 in the series since the creation of the Big 12.

Players to Watch: Cowboys running back Jaylen Warren rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the October win, while Bears safety Jalen Pitre was voted Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Fun Fact: Oklahoma State make its first title game appearance the same year that Oklahoma is absent for the first time since the recreation of the Championship Game.

Presto’s Pick: Cowboys make their case for Playoff inclusion, 31-22.

FCS Second Round: No. 2 James Madison (10-1) vs. Southeastern Louisiana (9-3), 2 p.m., ESPN+.

What’s this? A tournament system of more than four schools with conference champions earning automatic bids while other worthy teams get at-large bids? As FBS knows, it can’t be done. Or at least it can’t be done until the slow-to-reality College Football Playoff Board realizes that a 12-team format would generate a ton more money than anyone could possibly imagine. The Dukes are following the money to FBS (heading to the Sun Belt Conference by 2023), but before they do they’re going to attempt another deep run into the FCS Tournament: JMU has reached the semifinals four of the previous five years, including the 2016 National Championship.

This year’s 10-1 squad’s only blemish was a 28-27 loss to No. 7 Villanova while the Lions are coming off a 38-14 First Round win over Florida A&M. As fate would have it, both quarterbacks are named Cole and each won his respective league’s Player of the Year Award. JMU’s Cole Johnson may rank in the top 10 nationally in five major categories that include “point responsibility,” but SELA’s Cole Kelley leads FBS in completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns as well as passing efficiency. The defense this December afternoon might be defense, and the Lions allowed an average of 32 points in conference play while the Dukes held four of their last six foes to under 20 points.

Presto’s Pick: JMU advances, 31-23.

SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia (12-0) vs. No. 4 Alabama (11-1), 4 p.m., CBS.

What’s at stake: The Bulldogs are battling for the top seed while the Crimson Tide are trying to make the College Football Playoff for the seventh time in eight years.

Previous Meeting: Alabama beat Georgia 41-24 last year and is 2-0 and is 2-0 against the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game (2012, 2018).

Players to Watch: Bulldogs tight end Brock Towers was Stetson Bennett’s top target, leading the team with 37 catches for 652 yards and 10 touchdowns. Crimson Tide freshman quarterback Bryce Young threw for 3,901 yards and 40 touchdowns.

Fun Fact: Bama Coach Nick Saban is 9-1 in this game, winning both appearances while at LSU before dropping going 7-1 with the Tide.

Presto’s Pick: Bama’s year of close calls (four one-possession wins) comes back to haunt them in a 29-23 loss.

AAC Championship: No. 3 Cincinnati (12-0) vs. No. 16 Houston (11-1), 4 p.m., ABC.

What’s at stake: The Bearcats are trying to become the first Group of Five team to qualify for the playoff while a Cougars win would be their 12th straight since losing their opener to Texas Tech.

Previous Meeting: Cincinnati won 38-10 last year as the Bearcats are 4-2 against the Cougars since the AAC was formed.

Players to Watch: Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (3,000 yards passing with 27 touchdowns) was voted the league’s Offensive Player of the Year while Cougars running back Alton McCaskill (16 touchdowns) was voted the conference’s top rookie.

Fun Fact: Both schools are headed to the Big 12 in the latest conference carousel.

Presto’s Pick: Bearcats keep the dream alive, 39-31.

Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan (11-1) vs. No. 15 Iowa (10-2), 8 p.m., FOX.

What’s at stake: One week after ending a decadelong drought against Ohio State the Wolverines can punch their first-ever Playoff ticket while the Hawkeyes can prove that their midseason No. 2 ranking wasn’t a mirage and secure a spot in the Rose Bowl.

Previous Meeting: Michigan won in Iowa City 10-3 while the Hawkeyes are 7-6 in series this century.

Players to Watch: Wolverines defensive lineman Aiden Hutchinson tallied 13 sacks on his way to being voted Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year while the Hawkeyes Dane Belton finished tied for the league lead with 5 interceptions.

Fun Fact: Saturday will be the first time I can’t use the old standby “Michigan has been in as many Big Ten Championship Games as Maryland and Rutgers.”

Presto’s Pick: Wolverines win, 44-17.

ACC Championship: No. 17 Pitt vs. No. 18 Wake Forest, 8 p.m., ABC.

What’s at stake: The Panthers can win their first-ever conference championship while the Demon Deacons try to take the ACC for the first time since 2006.

Previous Meeting: Pitt beat Wake in 2018 34-13 in the only meeting between these two schools.

Players to Watch: Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 4,066 yards and 40 touchdowns while the Deacs Sam Hartman notched 3,711 yards with 34 TDs passing.

Fun Fact: This is the first year since 2008 that neither Clemson nor Florida State are playing for the championship.

Presto’s Pick: Panthers produce, 41-30.

Kippy & Buffy had Charlotte on their minds as recently as one month ago as Virginia controlled its path to the ACC Championship Game before the loss at Pitt Nov. 20. They’re still planning on going (good friends Henry & Hildy live there) and instead of celebrating a return to Bank of America Stadium they’ll be saluting six fine years of their program under the stewardship of Bronco Mendenhall. And they’re going to go out with a South African Pinotage: specifically a 2019 bottle of Southern Right: “intense classically styled, clay-grown wine, packed with complex berry fruit, beautiful tannins and subtle wood spice,” the winery’s website reads. When dealing with wood spice, always err on the side of subtlety. Cheers.

UTSA over Western Kentucky in Conference USA, Northern Illinois over Kent State in the Mid-American, San Diego State outscores Utah State in the Mountain West, Louisiana-Lafayette tops Appalachian State in the Sun Belt.

Last Week: 3-0.

Overall: 81-26.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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