By Phil Rodriguez
The regular season is behind us (well, except for Army, Navy, and half of the Big 12), and so this week we’ll see the different division champs battle it out for conference supremacy. Some matchups promise to be nail-biting, knockdown, drag-out battles between evenly matched opponents, while others look like scheduled blowouts. Don’t worry, Phil’s here to break it all down for you.
1 Alabama vs 15 Florida
The consensus number-one team in the nation rolls into Atlanta looking hotter than perhaps any Nick Saban-led team ever has (and that’s saying something). Their opponent: the Florida Gators, who have somehow limped their way through an uncharacteristically weak SEC East to find themselves face to face with this year’s Crimson Tide behemoth. Florida have looked better offensively this season when Purdue transfer Austin Appleby has led the offense, and it looks like he’ll get the start given Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio’s injury (Purdue transfers Appleby and LSU’s Danny Etling have combined to throw for 2870 yards and 15 touchdowns to only six interceptions, with a combined 60% completion rate. And all of this against two of the tougher schedules in college football against solid SEC defenses. My point: Hey Purdue, hang on to your quarterbacks and maybe you won’t be so terrible.).
The Gators will need a ton of help to win this game, and frankly I feel like this is a team that’s played far beneath what their ranking is. The toughest team Florida has beat all year is likely either Georgia or South Carolina, and both are underachieving mightily (yes, contrary to popular demand this is below what Gamecocks fans expect). The Gators had a chance to prove their worth with a win over Tennessee in Week 4, but they gave up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lose the game. This called in to question not just their mediocre offense, but also what was supposed to be a solid and punishing defense. Appleby played well in that game, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns against what’s been a decent Tennessee defense. He’ll need a miracle against this defense though.
Alabama has shown the ability to stop all forms of offensive attack this season, but if they’ve had any trouble with anything it’s been short passes. If Florida coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier play their cards right and go with slants, dump-offs and screens without getting predictable, they could just have a chance. But the fact remains that this team hasn’t had a touchdown scored against them since they played Texas A&M in Week 8. The likes of Appleby and running back Jordan Scarlett will have a very tough go at trying to break that streak. I’m not entirely sure they’ll succeed.
Alabama 38 Florida 6
Big Ten Championship
6 Wisconsin vs 7 Penn State
Perhaps the most interesting conference championship game takes place between two teams who arguably aren’t even the best two in the conference. This is not to say that these are bad teams; quite the contrary. Either one of these teams would have a far better chance at the Crimson Tide than the Florida Gators do and, if they get extraordinarly lucky, they could have a chance to prove that.
Both of these teams have been playing well for most of the season, and both have been doing so by playing traditional Big 10 football: tough defense and a lot of running the ball. Penn State comes into this game red hot though, riding an eight game win streak that includes wins over Ohio State and the Official “Can’t Decide if they’re Good or Not” Team of the Year: Iowa. The Badgers have been no joke this year either, and were a couple of missed tackles and a fantastic J.T Barrett run away from beating the Buckeyes as well.
The Nittany Lions come into this game with an offense that, although statistically only somewhat above-average, has been consistent and knows how to get it done on the ground. Quarterback Trace McSorley is an efficient passer with good mobility; he’s thrown only five interceptions this year and added six rushing touchdowns to running back Saquon Barkley’s remarkable fifteen. Barkley has been the workhorse of this offense, racking up yards and points alongside weapons like stud wide receiver Chris Godwin. The Badgers fare well on defense, ranked 7th in defense nationally with only 292 yards and 13.7 points allowed per game. But during their win streak, Penn State has scored less than 29 points only once in those eight games, and that was against Ohio State.
Wisconsin isn’t bad at running the ball either, and the triple-threat of power-backs Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw and the agile Corey Clement have combined for 1,993 yards and 21 touchdowns this season (AKA a bad season for Ron Dayne *ZING*), and are assisted by game managing quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook (it’s unclear which quarterback will start at this time after Hornibrook left last week’s game with a head injury).
Remember last week’s picks, how I discussed the unstoppable force of the two teams’ running games would meet the immovable objects of their defenses, and the better defense would therefore be the victor? Ohio State proved themselves better on defense and came away with the win (although Curtis Samuel certainly helped, too). The Big Ten championship will come down to the same factor, and in this respect the scales tip slightly towards Wisconsin. The Badgers have one of the best defenses in the nation, and a trio of solid running backs bolstered by a massive and talented offensive line. They should be able to bruise their way past the Nittany Lions.
Wisconsin 20 Penn State 13
4 Washington vs 8 Colorado
Two resurgent teams will meet in San Francisco on Friday night, as the Washington Huskies face off against the Colorado Buffaloes. The Huskies might be grateful they didn’t get matched against USC after losing to the Trojans late in the regular season, but Colorado will still likely present a formidable foe. The Buffs had to contend with arguably the more talented Pac-12 South this season, and picked up quality wins against the aforementioned Trojans, as well as Utah and Washington State. Colorado looked good even in defeat in their 45-28 loss at Michigan early in the season, and in fact led the Wolverines 21-7 at the end of the first quarter.
The Buffs have rumbled into this game on the tailcoats of their two big offensive studs: quarterback Sefo Liufau and running back Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay has 15 touchdowns on the year and averages 5.4 yards per carry. Liufau has only thrown three interceptions on the year while racking up 2150 passing yards, 481 rushing yards, and 11 passing touchdowns with 7 rushing touchdowns. Washington’s Jake Browning lost a bit of that Heisman sheen when he fell apart against USC, but he’s still a major threat to a Buffaloes defense that’s so far allowed only 187.8 yards per game and 13 passing touchdowns this season.
Regardless of the result, the Buffaloes are guaranteed their first bowl appearance since 2007, and their 10 wins this year are the most since 2001. Washington hasn’t had enough chances to prove themselves this season, and when they did they fell apart a little bit. Colorado has played steady and bruising football all year, and it’s that kind of style that the Huskies may just end up having trouble with. It will be a rough game and we may see a few lead changes, but Colorado should have wrapped up their first ever Pac-12 Championship when this one is over.
Colorado 34 Washington 31
3 Clemson vs 23 Virginia Tech
The Clemson Tigers will play the Virginia Tech Hokies in Orlando, Florida this Saturday. Out of the three top-four teams playing in conference championship games, Clemson is probably the second most likely to be upset after the Washington Huskies. The Hokies haven’t played like a team on fire this season, but they’ve shown some flashes of brilliance in key games. Highlights were a 33-20 win over Miami, and a stout 17-7 win at North Carolina against super-accurate quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the driving rains leftover from Hurricane Matthew.
Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans will be the one this game comes down to: the dual threat quarterback has combined for more than 3800 yards of total offense and 34 touchdowns this season. He’s the Hokies’ leading rusher and for good reason: who would want to tackle a 6’ 3”, 238-pound speedster barreling towards you? DeShaun Watson isn’t bad either, but at 6’2” 210 he’s not quite as physically intimidating when he leaves the pocket. Watson has turned the ball over more as well, throwing 14 interceptions to Evans’ five. If Evans can have a solid game against a Clemson defense that’s 12th against the pass and 25th against the run, the Hokies can win this one. But as those rankings prove, Clemson is no joke on defense.
The Hokies have a shot at this one, but it’s definitely a long one. The Tigers are very likely the victors here.
Clemson 31 Virginia Tech 23
Phil’s 2016 Record: 5-4