Presto’s Picks: Conference championship edition

College football, despite consistently delivering one of the best regular seasons in sports, never fails to let us down when it comes to the postseason process. And even though the playoff that yields four spots from five major conferences will expand next season, we get one more December Sunday of arguments and anguish.

There are easily eight schools that could make their case for inclusion at this point, and that doesn’t include non-Power Five teams with gaudy records. Next year, they’ll triple the field to a dozen (I thought eight would be enough, but when four extra games of $$$ can be added why not?) and I hope the small conferences get some representation as opposed to a three-loss club that stuffed its schedule with FCS and non-Power Fives.

Meanwhile, the coaching carousel has claimed James Madison’s Curt Cignetti. Good luck at Indiana, who even in the post-divisional world still faces a slew of programs who care a lot more about football than the Hoosiers ever will.

Friday’s Games:

Conference USA Championship: No. 20 Liberty (12-0, 8-0) vs New Mexico St. (10-3, 7-1), 7 p.m., CBSSN

Call this the Ghost of Conference Membership Past as 16 of the 18 previous championship game winners are no longer in the league. The Flames took the regular season showdown by 16 on Sept. 9 thanks in part to Quinton Cooley’s 106 yards rushing. The junior running back gained 1,251 yards this year after three years and 402 yards rushing at Wake Forest (Winston-Salem’s loss is Lynchburg’s gain).

Presto’s Pick: Flames torch the Aggies, 37-22.

Pac-12 Championship: No. 3 Washington (12-0, 9-0) vs No. 5 Oregon (11-1, 8-1), 8 p.m., ABC

A preview of one of the Big Ten’s games to watch in 2024 as a once-proud league (I gave their eulogy in September) gets one final evening on the national stage. Impermanence is front and center in this matchup on the field as well: the Huskies beat the Ducks 36-33 in October behind 302 yards and four touchdowns passing by Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. while ex-Auburn QB Bo Nix tallied 337 yards and two touchdowns in defeat.

Presto’s Pick: Huskies make their case for the Playoff party with a 39-38 thriller.

Saturday’s Games:

FCS Second Round: Richmond (9-3) at No. 5 Albany (9-3), noon, ESPN+

These two CAA schools didn’t play one another during the regular season, tying for the conference title with Villanova (also playoff bound and hosting Youngstown State). The Great Danes beat the Wildcats in September to secure the tiebreaker and have won five straight since slipping at New Hampshire. The Spiders have won seven in a row since their midseason hiccup against Hampton.

Presto’s Pick: Anytime a school’s mascot is based on Scooby Doo, you take them. Albany solves the mystery of the Spiders 24-20. Zoinks!

Big 12 Championship: No. 7 Texas (11-1, 8-1) vs No. 19 Oklahoma State (9-3, 7-2), noon, ABC

For all of the Longhorns bluster, they haven’t won the conference since 2009 and haven’t played in this game since 2018. The Cowboys have just one Big 12 title in their history and that came in 2011, when the ten-team Big 12 didn’t have a title game (now they have 14 before settling on 16 next fall). Oklahoma does have the recent edge in the series with nine wins in their last 13 meetings against UT. They sent longtime in-state rival OU packing earlier this month … can they make it a double play by denying the entitled Longhorns before they join the SEC?

Presto’s Pick: Texas is back as they corral the Cowboys, 45-24.

MAC Championship: No. 23 Toledo (11-1, 8-0) vs Miami (Ohio) (10-2, 7-1), noon, ESPN

Despite being further west, the Redhawks represent the East while the Rockets are in the West (they’d be better off if they adopted “Northwest” and “Southeast” divisions). Toledo won the regular season meeting 21-17 in October and is two points shy of a perfect season (they lost to Illinois on a late field goal on Labor Day weekend). Despite success by both schools in the championship game era (four titles for Toledo, three for Miami), this is just their second meeting (UT won the 2004 showdown). Miami is also to be referred to as “Miami University,” not “University of Miami” or even “Miami of Ohio.”

Presto’s Pick: Toledo triumphs, 27-16.

Mountain West Championship: UNLV (9-3, 6-2) vs Boise State (7-5, 6-2), 3 p.m., FOX

Due to a three-way tie, four computer rankings were averaged to determine this matchup, with the hottest team of the bunch, San Jose State (six straight wins plus a victory over UNLV), sent packing. The Broncos boast more history (three wins in six appearances during the 10 years of the championship game), but also more baggage as they fired Coach Andy Avalos two weeks ago despite a 42-14 win over New Mexico to make the team 4-2 in league play. They’re currently unbeaten under interim Coach Spencer Danielson.

Presto’s Pick: UNLV bashes the Broncos, 31-28.

SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia (12-0, 8-0) vs No. 8 Alabama (11-1, 8-0), 4 p.m., CBS

The Crimson Tide has won seven of the last eight meetings (including three SEC Championship Games), but dropped the most recent matchup between the two schools in the College Football Playoff two years ago. The West owns an 18-13 edge entering the final year of divisional play, with the Tide winning 10 of those. Alabama also hasn’t lost in this game since 2008, Coach Nick Saban’s second season. While this year’s team has dodged multiple bullets in conference play, with one-possession wins over Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn, the two-time defending National Champion Bulldogs are 4-0 against ranked foes by the average score of 43-15.

Presto’s Pick: Bama stuns the world with a 28-24 upset.

AAC Championship: No. 17 Tulane (11-1, 8-0) vs No. 25 SMU (10-2, 8-0), 4 p.m., ABC

The Green Wave won the title last year while the Mustangs are off to the ACC after this game. Southern Methodist is also minus quarterback Preston Stone and his 3,000+ yards passing after he suffered an injury against Navy last weekend. Kevin Jennings has thrown 24 passes all season and tries to find his way against a defense that ranks 18th nationally after allowing an average of 14 points per game in November.

Presto’s Pick: Tulane sends the Mustangs out of the league on a 35-10 loss.

Sun Belt Championship: Troy (10-2, 7-1) vs Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2), 4 p.m., ESPN

We would much rather be watching James Madison in this game. But thanks to the NCAA, this is the matchup we get. Both teams played one-score games with JMU with the Trojans losing by two in September and the Mountaineers winning by three in November. There’s a contrast of quarterbacks, with Troy starting sixth year senior Gunnar Watson (3,147 yards and 26 touchdowns passing) and Appalachian enjoying the fruits of first-year starter Joey Aguilar (3,271 passing yards with 33 TDs).

Presto’s Pick: Troy wins an offensive extravaganza, 41-37.

Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan (12-0, 9-0) vs No. 18 Iowa (10-2, 7-2), 6 p.m., FOX

Wolverines Coach Jim Harbaugh is back! And they could use him after posting wins of nine, seven and six points during his suspension. The Hawkeyes are 8-7 in the series this century, most memorably handing UM its first loss of the season in 2016. While the Wolverines scored the most and allowed the fewest points this year in the Big Ten, Iowa has grinded its way to 60 points during its four-game winning streak. To say the team that once famously scored “seven the hard way” in a 7-3 win against South Dakota State (two safeties and a field goal) is offensively challenged is a major understatement.

Presto’s Pick: Wolverines pounce, 38-6.

ACC Championship: No. 4 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) vs No. 15 Louisville (10-2, 7-1), 8 p.m., ABC

The Seminoles lead the Cardinals 18-6 all-time but are just 5-4 in the series since UL replaced Maryland in the ACC 10 years ago. FSU is also minus quarterback Jordan Travis, with Tate Rodemaker completing 25 of 48 passes for 351 yards the last two weeks. Even with Travis they had trouble disposing of the likes of Boston College and Clemson this fall. And even with a win, do they get leapfrogged by a Washington or Oregon whose Pac-12 victory will be over a much more impressive foe than a Cardinals team that’s lost to Pitt and Kentucky?

The season may be over for Virginia, but Kippy & Buffy since coming to Charlotte for the 2019 Championship Game have made this a yearly trip, especially since their best friends Henry & Hildegarde (they were all first-year students at UVA together) call the North Carolina city home. And a bottle from Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards will rekindle memories of both girls’ bachelorette parties held there. The Red Pump 2019 is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, merlot, Tannat and a touch of Viognier.

“The sweet nose brings to mind figs, ripe strawberries and black currants followed by deep raisin, date and prune flavors,” according to the winery website. “The finish is slightly oaky with light acidity and tannins.”

Presto’s Pick: Seminoles win 33-27 but don’t advance. Blame light acidity and tannins …

Last week: 5-0! Pass the coffee as Closing Month finishes with a flourish.

Season: 76-33.

Presented by FanDuel Sportsbook.

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).

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up