Presto’s Picks: Conference Championship Edition

Welcome to the somewhat serious/semi-silly season of college football.

The already active coaching carousel completes the circle that began way back when in September when schools like Nebraska jettisoned regimes in midstream (actually, three games isn’t even midstream; Scott Frost had one metaphorical foot still on land when he was pink-slipped).

Players enter the transfer portal (Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong deserved a much better offensive line this fall) or NFL Draft (goodbye and good health to Maryland’s Dontay Demus). And while the College Football Playoff will expand to 12 schools in 2024, there’s still on the field action that will dictate which four schools make the postseason tournament this year.

I would have been happy with eight instead of 12, as what I like about the expansion is that each of the Power Five conferences will send their champion to the playoff. That’s how you determine a National Champion, by settling things on the field instead of having what amounts to a beauty contest where the judges often come up with the criteria to fit the teams chosen instead of the other way around.

Twelve schools might mean strength of schedule comes into play more, meaning better interconference games in September. And it also means each of the conference championship games carry a little extra weight (a top four seed and a bye) for some plus inclusion (the best “group of six” school) for others. I only hope this means the committee won’t expand (from 13 to 39) in kind.

Let’s dive into the weekend’s conference championship action:

Conference USA: North Texas (7-5) vs UTSA (10-2), 7 p.m., CBSSN.

What to know: The defending champion Roadrunners lost a pair of non-league games at Texas and Houston, while beating the Mean Green 31-27 on Oct. 22 thanks to Frank Harris’ touchdown pass with 15 seconds left. North Texas has won three of four since that day and has a QB that can bring it as well as Austin Aune threw for 325 that day and has 31 TD passes for the season. Both defenses allow 26+ points per game, so expect a shootout.

Presto’s Pick: UTSA 44, North Texas 34.

Pac-12: No. 4 USC (11-1) vs. No. 12 Utah (9-3), 8 p.m., FOX.

What to know: Gone is the North-South competition as the top two seeds meet for the first time. The Utes won the regular season showdown 43-42 at home. Each school is making its fourth championship game appearance and is looking for its second title. The Trojans are led by Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams but both teams make their living on the ground. Utah finished the season ranked second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (246.3), while USC finished fifth (184).

Presto’s Pick: Trojans triumph and punch their ticket to the playoff, 37-30.

Saturday’s showdowns:

Big 12: No. 3 TCU (12-0) vs. No. 13 Kansas State (9-3), noon, ABC.

What to know: The Horned Frogs won the regular season matchup by 10 points in Waco, while the Wildcats have won their last three games by an average of 22 points per game. TCU leads the conference in scoring while K-State allows the fewest points per game. With Oklahoma (11 titles) and Texas (3-3 in the title game) departing for the SEC, this might be the future of the conference.

Presto’s Pick: Horned Frogs hold on in another wild one, 31-30.

MAC: Toledo (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-3), noon, ESPN.

What to know: Ohio led the league in scoring (34 points per game to Toledo’s 33.3) but Rockets are 29-12-1 all-time in the series after last year’s 35-23 win. They’ve also won three championship games (second-most among current members behind Northern Illinois) while Ohio is still looking for its first title (they last played in this game six years ago).

Presto’s Pick: Bobcats beat the Rockets and make history, 39-33.

FCS Second Round: William & Mary (10-1) vs. Gardner-Webb (7-5), 2 p.m., ESPN+.

Playoff time! Seven of the Tribe’s ten wins have come by double-digits behind an offense led by the 1-2 punch on the ground of Bronson Yoder (1,061 yards on 6.6 per carry) and Malachi Imoh (709 on 8.6). The Bulldogs lost their first three road games of 2022 before winning three straight (the most recent last weekend’s victory at Eastern Kentucky). They also have a deep threat in T.J. Luther (62 catches for 1,134 yards and 8 touchdowns), but that won’t be enough against Mike London’s team.

Presto’s Pick: Tribe advance with a 41-27 triumph.

Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina (9-2) vs. Troy (10-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN.

What to know: JMU is going to play in this game next year, right? The Trojans have one of the more logical nicknames in college football and also boast a nine-game winning streak since slipping at Appalachian State on the last play of the game (the other defeat came at preseason No. 21 Ole Miss). The Chanticleers may have one of the cooler nicknames in FBS but they also lost their starting quarterback Grayson McCall last month to injury and have scored 30 points in the two games without him.

Presto’s Pick: Trojans triumph, 37-13.

SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia (12-0) vs. No. 11 LSU (9-3), 4 p.m., CBS.

What to know: The Bulldogs are likely in the playoff even with a loss. Meanwhile, thanks to their implosion at Texas A&M last week, the Tigers are likely out of contention even with a 77-0 win. The West Division has won 10 of the last 11 games with Georgia’s 2017 victory the exception. Fourth-year senior Stetson Bennett followed up the National Championship season with a better season statistically (more yards, higher completion percentage, fewer interceptions) while the Tigers under head coach Brian Kelly are 2-1 against ranked foes.

Presto’s Pick: Georgia’s on my mind-and safely in the playoff-with a 45-30 victory.

AAC Championship: No. 18 Tulane (10-2) vs. No. 22 UCF (9-3), 4 p.m., ABC.

What to know: The Knights won the regular season meeting 38-31 as John Rhys Plumlee threw for 132 yards and a touchdown while running for 176 and two more scores. The Green Wave own the best defense in the conference and their other loss was by three to Southern Miss. UCF saw nothing but nail-biters in November with all four of their games (including the win at Tulane) being decided by one possession (including a loss at home to Navy).

Presto’s Pick: Tulane says good Knight with a 34-27 win.

Mountain West Championship: Fresno State (8-4) vs. Boise State (9-3), 4 p.m., FOX.

What to know: This conference separates its teams right, with neither the “Mountain” nor “West” divisions resembling the Big Ten West or ACC Coastal. The two schools have also combined to win five of the nine title tilts. This year’s game is in Boise, where the Broncos beat the Bulldogs 40-20 on Oct. 8. They also boast the second-best running game and scoring defense in the league behind option-stats-massaging Air Force. Fresno can air it out behind the arm of third-year starter Jake Haener, who did not play in the loss to BSU this fall and went 6-2 as a starter (with losses to Oregon State and USC).

Presto’s Pick: Blue Field advantage holds as Boise State wins 35-31.

FCS Second Round: Richmond (9-3) at Sacramento State (11-0), 5 p.m., ESPN+.

The Spiders defeated Davidson in the first round 41-0 and traveled cross-country to face the unbeaten No. 2 seed. The Hornets have topped 30 points ten times this fall but have won four of their last five games by a touchdown or less. They also boast an intriguing quarterback combination: Jake Dunniway (244 of the team’s 324 passing attempts) is the long iron and wedge while Asher O’Hara (19 touchdowns rushing with eight more passing) is the putter. They also have a running back in Cameron Skattebo (1,250 yards rushing) who averages 7.4 per carry. Can Reece Udinski (3,396 yards passing this year but just one 300-yard game over the last month) return to his midseason form?

Presto’s Pick: Spiders come up short, 28-20.

Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan (12-0) vs. Purdue (8-4), 8 p.m., FOX.

These Boilermakers barely won at Maryland and lost at Syracuse this year while almost delivering the gift that would have been four 5-4 teams tying for the West title. Instead, they rallied at Indiana to punch their first trip to Indianapolis…but don’t be too smug Wolverines fans. You needed a last-second field goal to edge Illinois, trailed Penn State at the half, and until last December had as many championship game appearances as Rutgers. Michigan won’t have running back Blake Corum (1,463 yards rushing) due to injury and their pass defense will be tested by the Aidan O’Connell-to-Charlie Jones (97 catches for 1,199 yards and 12 TD) connection. The East champ is 8-0 in this game.

Presto’s Pick: Wolverines hold off a late rally to keep their division perfect, 35-27.

ACC Championship: No. 10 Clemson (10-2) vs. No. 24 North Carolina (9-3), 8 p.m., ABC.

Both schools faded in November after threatening to crash the playoff party, with the Tar Heels tumbling twice and the Tigers falling at home to in-state rival South Carolina (that certainly has to sting). In the final Atlantic-Coastal showdown, Drake Maye — the heir to Sam Howell — bettered the now-in-the-NFL quarterback’s numbers (3,847 yards and 35 TD) while the seven-time title game winning Tigers have been fortunate to beat Wake Forest, Syracuse and Florida State before their luck ran out at Notre Dame. But the Tar Heels allow 30 points per game and rank last in the ACC in most defensive categories.

Presto’s Pick: Clemson puts the Coastal champ to bed one final time, 45-35.

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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