2021 College Football Conference Championships Preview
College football has reached its most crucial weekend of the season as the conference championship games will be played on Friday and Saturday with bowl announcements and the college football playoff reveal coming on Sunday. Let's take a look at what's on tap for championship weekend this year.
Conference USA Championship: Western Kentucky (8-4) vs. UT-San Antonio (11-1), 7 PM ET, CBS Sports Network
As I said in this week's podcast, this could be the highest-scoring game of the week. Both offenses average over 35 points per game and over 430 yards per game but with different approaches. Western Kentucky's offense runs through star quarterback Bailey Zappe, who leads the country in passing yards and touchdown passes after transferring from Houston Baptist. He has two 1,000 yard receivers to throw to in Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley.
It's a little bit of a different formula for UTSA. While quarterback Frank Harris has improved as a passer, the offensive star for the Roadrunners is running back Sincere McCormick, who ranks eighth in the country in rushing yards. McCormick has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in two consecutive seasons and missed the mark by just 17 yards in 2019.
These teams played a shootout in their first meeting this year with UTSA scrapping out a 52-46 win. With average defenses on both sides, we certainly could see a similar game Friday night.
PAC-12 Championship: No. 10 Oregon (10-2) vs. No. 17 Utah (9-3), 8 PM ET, ABC
This has to be the one team Oregon did not want to see, but it was the most likely matchup after the Utes' 38-7 win over the Ducks just a couple of weeks ago. Utah executed a near-perfect game plan and the Ducks couldn't recover.
Utah has found some stability at quarterback with Cameron Rising emerging partway through the season, and his play has been a great complement to Tavion Thomas and the running attack. You can't really focus on one aspect of the Utah offense anymore, and that makes it even more dangerous. The defense has been good all year and gave the Ducks fits in the first meeting.
Oregon's offense is also predicated on the run, especially this season with the running backs being the deepest group on the roster. Boston College transfer quarterback Anthony Brown also adds to the powerful running game with his mobility. In the first game against Utah however, he showed that it is difficult for the Oregon passing game to succeed against the Utes. For that reason, it will be extremely important for the Ducks to get off to a fast start and play with a lead.
Special teams on these two squads cannot be overlooked either. In the first game, Utah kick returner Britain Covey blew the game open with a punt return for a touchdown on the last play of the second quarter. That play completely changed the outlook of the game and the momentum shifted greatly in Utah's favor. Special teams can shift a game in many ways, and these two teams always have good units.
Big 12 Championship: No. 9 Baylor (10-2) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (11-1), 12 PM ET, ABC
This is a somewhat atypical game in many aspects. For one, you do not usually expect Oklahoma State and Baylor to be the two fighting it out for the conference title, but that's a testament to the ability and dedication of these coaching staffs and their players. You're used to seeing Oklahoma playing for a playoff spot against whoever else makes it, but it's their rival Oklahoma State that has a chance to do that this year.
Also, these teams have playing styles that we haven't been used to seeing in the Big 12 in recent years.
The Big 12 has been known as an offensive conference with electric passing games and little to no defense. Yet, Baylor has the seventh-best running game in the country and Oklahoma State has had to pivot its approach to put a greater emphasis on the run. Additionally, both teams have top 50 defenses.
In their first meeting, Oklahoma State shut down the Baylor offense and overcame some turnovers in a 24-14 win. The Cowboys' defense finished the year ranked third in total defense in the NCAA. That makes this a huge test for Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. There may be a few things he can use from Oklahoma's approach last week, but this is a stout defense.
I would not expect this to be high-scoring as both offenses have clear flaws and play similar styles. Both defenses are among the top 20 in stopping the run, so nothing will come easy. It's going to come down to which defense bends but doesn't break (force field goals instead of allowing touchdowns for example) at the crucial moments.
MAC Championship: Kent State (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (8-4), 12 PM ET, ESPN
Another high-scoring rematch featuring pretty good offenses and atrocious defenses. Kent Stae beat NIU 52-47 earlier this year and the difference was one single turnover. Extra possessions are vital in these types of games and I expect a similar game here.
NIU returns to the conference championship as MAC West division champion after rebounding from an 0-6 2020 season. Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi has shown improvement at quarterback, but it is really the running game that gets the Huskies going. Jay Ducker and Harrison Waylee each have over 500 yards on the ground with Clint Ratkovich adding another 424 to the fifth-best rushing offense in the nation. Having that many decent running backs really helps an offense.
Kent State won the MAC East but holds just a 2-5 record outside of its home stadium. Therefore, it will benefit them to not let the environment impact their mental state. The Golden Flashes have the third-best running game in the nation behind Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams with QB Dustin Crum and WR Donta Cephus making plays in the passing game.
It would be easy to say that whoever stops the run best will win this game, but we saw the passing attacks emerge in the first meeting to damage the opposing defenses. Regardless of the approach, both defenses are in the bottom 15 overall, so there should be plenty of offense yet again.
Mountain West Championship: Utah State (9-3) vs. No. 19 San Diego State (11-1), 3 PM ET, FOX
San Diego State is not much of a surprise here, but Utah State has surpassed expectations in the first year under head coach Blake Anderson. Anderson took the position with the Aggies after a tremendously successful run at Arkansas State, so it's no surprise he is still succeeding.
San Diego State is built on its defense. That side of the ball has NFL caliber talent and is tied for ninth in scoring defense--allowing just over 17 points per game. Meanwhile, the offense is bottom tier and struggles against even average defenses, and that was crystal clear against Boise State. The Aztec offense really needs a short field to become effective.
Utah State is an offensive team and really has been since they gained notoriety under Gary Andersen. The Aggies are tied with BYU for 17th in total offense and score over 30 points per game. The Aggies have a fantastic passing game behind Logan Bonner, who transferred with Anderson from Arkansas State and will need to play an aggressive style to win this game.
San Diego State needs to have their defense set the tone and pace, otherwise, it could be tough for the offense to keep up.
Sun Belt Championship: Appalachian State (10-2) vs. No. 24 Louisiana (11-1), 3:30 PM ET, ESPN
Louisiana crushed App State in their first meeting 41-13. The Ragin Cajuns have been a very good offensive team that uses many running backs to its advantage. They lost three of them to the pros after last season and have replaced them with three new ones: Chris Smith, Montrell Johnson, and Emani Bailey. QB Levi Lewis also adds to the run game and is a decent passer.
Appalachian State brought in Duke and Clemson transfer Chase Brice at quarterback, and he's had a solid season. He has many different receivers to spread the ball around like Corey Sutton and Malik Wiliams. Many expected Camerun Peoples to break out at running back, but Nate Noel has surpassed him. Regardless, the two have combined for almost 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
Having said all that, the key for Louisiana is topping the run. I know App State has a good passing game as well, nut it's the rushing offense that has carried them on that side of the ball. Both teams have excellent defenses, so points may be at a premium in this one. App State should be motivated to play better after its performance in the first meeting.
SEC Championship : No. 3 Alabama (11-1) vs. No. 1 Georgia (12-0), 4 PM ET, CBS
Best game of the weekend. Georgia is the only lock to make the playoff and has the best defense in the country, while Alabam likely needs a win to get there unless a bunch of teams lose.
This is a huge rivalry with coaching staffs that are familiar with each other, Georgia head coach Kirby SMart was once Nick Saban's defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa. Yet, they both take different approaches this year. Georgia leans on its top defense and manages just enough offense through its running game. Alabama relies more on the passing game behind freshman Bryce Young and a deep group of receivers led by Ohio State transfer Jameson WIlliams.
If there's a weakness for Georgia, its most likely the passing offense. The Bulldogs have settled in with Stetson Bennett at quarterback, but they've had several question marks there since Jake Fromm left. The weakness for Alabama is on defense, The Tide have a talented defense but can fall apart at times. The consistency there will be key in this game. George Pickens being available would also be a huge addition for Georgia.
AAC Championship: No. 21 Houston (11-1) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (12-0), 4 PM ET, ABC
Housotn and Cincinnati have not played each other this season, so I'm interested to see how they approach this game. Both teams have great offenses and defenses and NFL talent across the board. They are much more similar than some realize, and the last time Cincinnati played a team like this it blew out SMU.
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder is a true dual-threat at the position and oozes with NFL potential. His best games this season were against Notre Dame and SMU. BUt, he is coming off one of his worst games against East Carolina. In that game, Ridder became inaccurate and threw a couple interceptions in the second half to let the Pirates back in the game. If he does that this week, the Bearcats may go down.
Houston has won 11 games in a row since losing its season opener to Texas Tech. As usual (at least with the good Houston teams), the Cougars best offense comes from the passing game and the defense has shut down opponents so far. Cincinnati is going to be the biggest challenge so far, but the Bearcats cannot afford to be overlooking Houston for the playoff.
Both teams are in the top 20 in scoring defense and are separated by just 0.3 points per game on offense, so this should be a good game.
Big Ten Championship: No. 13 Iowa (10-2) vs. No.2 Michigan (11-1), 8 PM ET, Fox
This game gets more intriguing by the minute to me. If you listen to the national media, it sounds like Michigan is going to run away with a win, but I'm not so convinced. Yes, Michigan has a very good team and has won some impressive games. Yet, the Hawkeyes are no slouch.
Iowa was once ranked No. 2 in the polls as well after an impressive showing against Penn State and won 10 games. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has also been to this game before and is one of the best coaches in college football.
But the main intrigue is how similar these teams actually are, Both rank in the top 25 in total defense and rushing defense and are respectable in defending the pass. Additionally, they both like to play a blue-collared style of football. But those are where the similarities end.
Iowa's offense has to struggle score this year and really has no dynamic threat in its system. On the other side, Michigan has moved the ball up and down the field on most of its opponents with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum in the running game. This is where Iowa can give itself a chance. The Hawkeyes are a top 10 run defense and should know that Michigan wants to run. Cad McNamara is not a bad quarterback by any means, but the Wolverines' passing game is the weakest part of their offense.
With the struggles Iowa's offense has had, it makes sense for Michigan to be favored here. Just don't sleep on what the Hawkeyes' defense can do in this game. It will not be as easy as some think for Michigan.
ACC Championship: No. 15 Pittsburgh (10-2) vs. No. 16 Wake Forest (10-2)
These were not the teams everyone expected to emerge in the ACC when the season started. Most thought Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, or even Virginia Tech had the best chances, but here we are.
Pitt has had a great offensive season behind Heisman Trophy candidate Kenny Pickett at quarterback. Pickett is a fourth year starter who has worked his way into first round consideration in the 2022 NFL Draft. He's not a dual-threat like many young quarterbacks these days, but he can sling the ball around with the best of them.
Wake Forest has had a similarly successful season on offense with QB Sam Hartman finally emerging. The Demon Deacons at one point averaged over 50 points per game on offense and were even a top ten team. The biggest weakness they have is their defense. It isn't great and allows opponents to hang around.
I think this game favors Pitt just because they have the better defense. Simple as that.