It’s Championship Week! And while the Wolfpack won’t be participating this week, this might be the most competitive weekend of games all season until bowl season comes around. I mean, it’s not like we saw a competitive game last week with UNC in town.
The games kick off Friday with the Conference USA and Pac-12 title games. I’ve been singing Jerry Kill’s praises all year, but his work this year deserves another mention. New Mexico State has posted just their second double-digit win campaign in program history, with the other being back in 1960. Even crazier is that the program hadn’t even managed an 8-win season since 1965, and yet here they are at 10-3 with a chance for their first conference title since 1978. Kinda gotta be rooting for the Aggies here.
Opposite them will be Liberty, which I typo’d into “Lilberty” a few weeks back, and am still chuckling about. Lil Berty is sporting their best team in program history, and currently finds themselves undefeated and at #24 in the CFP rankings. It’s been an impressive debut season for Jamey Chadwell, and you have to wonder given what he’s done in Lynchburg and previously in Conway just how much longer until he’s a P5 head coach. The AAC would have been wise to go after Liberty during the latest round of conference expansion, but instead they went for larger market teams that bring minimal on-field value. Womp womp.
The big game Friday night, and one of the biggest of the weekend, is the Pac-12 championship game between Oregon and Washington. The winner of what could be, and likely will be, the final iteration of the conference’s football title game will be in the College Football Playoff. Washington won the regular season meeting between the two by a three-point margin, thanks to aggressive play calling by Dan Lanning. Since then, and before, Oregon has looked like one of the best teams in the country, and is on par with previous Ducks teams that have played for the national title. Washington is undefeated, but has been surviving by the skin of their teeth more times than not this year, going 6-0 in one-possession games. Probably not sustainable there. The two QBs in this one, Bo Nix and Michael Penix, are both likely to be Heisman Trophy finalists. If the game is anything like the first one, it’s must-watch TV.
Saturday’s noon slate has just two games, the Big XII title game and the MAC title game. The MAC one may be more entertaining one. Toledo’s lone loss of the season was in their opener at Illinois by a mere two points, but they’ve been great since. Still, they have a knack for playing - and winning - close games, having seven of their 12 games be decided by a margin of seven or less points. Miami (OH) is no slouch either, sporting just two losses on the year - a season opening loss at Miami (FL) and a four point home loss to Toledo back in October. The RedHawks win with a defense that is 8th in the country allowing just 16.3 points per game. The offense is middling, but the defense is so good that the team has only had three one-possession games all year.
Who knows what to make of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys got waxed by South Alabama and UCF, a pair of 6-6 teams, by a combined score of 78-10, but yet they’re still 9-3 and playing in the Big XII title game. They’re 15.5-point underdogs in their quest for their first conference title since 2011 (and only their second since 1976). RB Ollie Gordon is a beast. Texas has had quite the year with a lone blemish sitting on their record. They’re currently #7 in the CFP rankings, so they’ll need a convincing win in this one plus a Florida State loss to hop into the playoffs. This is a good, balanced Longhorns team. Impressive work by Steve Sarkisian, a coach I frankly didn’t think had it in him to produce this good of a team.
Boise State fired Andy Avalos when the Broncos were 5-5, after a 42-14 win, even though he posted a 10-win season (and a perfect 8-0 conference mark) last year. Expectations are high in potato country. Since then, interim coach Spencer Danielson has guided Boise State to two wins and a Mountain West title game appearance. This isn’t the best Broncos team by a longshot, but they can still capture the program’s fifth MWC title over the last dozen years. Holy smokes, what a job Barry Odom has done in his first year at UNLV. The Rebels only losses are to Michigan, Fresno State, and San Jose State, three teams with a combined 27-7 record. This is only the second winning season since 2000 for UNLV, and it has Odom in the running for the open Houston job.
Georgia-Alabama doesn’t really need any publicity here because a single click over to ESPN will beat you over the head with it. It’ll be a great game, sure. An Alabama win - especially coupled with a Texas win - will cause some CFP chaos and drama. Georgia hasn’t lost since the Bush administration... I think the first one.
SMU is at least bringing a Top 25 worthy resume to the ACC next year. Better than can be said for Cal and Stanford. The Mustangs have made a huge jump under second-year coach Rhett Lashlee, posting a perfect 8-0 mark in the AAC. They have looked iffy at times, including struggling to put away Rice and ECU, but wins are wins and their just one away from the program’s first conference title since 1984. Opposite SMU will be a Tulane squad which is also 8-0 and whose head coach, like UNLV’s, is also in the running for the open Houston gig. After going 31-43 over his first six years at Tulane, Willie Fritz has gone 23-3 over the last two. A win would give the Green Wave their second consecutive AAC title and likely a second straight New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
I’ll harp on this one more time, but the NCAA’s and Sun Belt’s rules barring a team moving up from FCS to FBS from participating in a conference championship game for the first two years is stupid. Moreover, it’s robbing the Sun Belt of a conference championship game featuring two Top 30 teams. Instead of getting James Madison’s 18th ranked SP+ squad against 28th ranked Troy, they get 48th ranked App State. No offense to the Mountaineers or their fans, a lot of whom stroll about these pages, and credit to App for beating the Dukes in their head-to-head matchup, but JMU finished a full game ahead in the conference standings and if a conference championship is finding out who the best team is, the Sun Belt is likely not to be crowning theirs this Saturday. That’s a shame.
As is, App State will be looking for their fifth Sun Belt championship, but their first since 2019. Troy, meanwhile, will be looking for back-to-back Sun Belt titles. The Trojans have emphatically bounced back from the dreadful Chip Lindsey era, posting a 22-4 record in Jon Sumrall’s two seasons at the head of the program. Impressive work.
It’ll be interesting to see what Iowa is able to do against Michigan. For reference, Iowa is the exact inverse in terms of ranking from NC State, with the Wolfpack currently being #30 in SP+ and #31 in Sagarin. Part of me wants Iowa to win, but the other part of me absolutely does not want to see Ohio State sneak into the CFP and certainly doesn’t want to support the Ferentz nepotism going on at Iowa.
Louisville and Florida State will bring us home on Saturday night, live from Charlotte. Surprisingly, the ACC title game currently has the closest spread of all the conference championship games (FSU is a 1.5-point favorite currently). That has everything to do with the injury to Jordan Travis and nothing to do with the Cardinals. Had Louisville not thrown away their game last week against Kentucky, they may well be favored heading into this one. NC State fans will be rooting for FSU to win big in the slim hopes that the Wolfpack can jump the Cardinals for the conference’s Orange Bowl bid, but all ACC fans should be rooting for the Seminoles as an FSU win would put them in the CFP and provide a larger payout for all conference members.
61/93 New Mexico State @ 20/55 Liberty - 7:00pm - CBSSN
4/4 Oregon vs 11/13 Washington - 8:00pm - ABC
41/27 Oklahoma State vs 7/7 Texas - 12:00pm - ABC
54/79 Miami (OH) vs 39/59 Toledo - 12:00pm - ESPN
44/47 Boise State vs 49/68 UNLV - 3:00pm - FOX
2/3 Georgia vs 8/5 Alabama - 4:00pm - CBS
25/25 SMU @ 43/50 Tulane - 4:00pm - ABC
48/52 Appalachian State @ 28/49 Troy - 4:00pm - ESPN
1/1 Michigan vs 31/30 Iowa - 8:00pm - FOX
23/26 Louisville vs 6/12 Florida State - 8:00pm - ABC