After a tumultuous and thrilling thirteen weeks of college football, this upcoming Championship Saturday is the final hurdle before bowl season. By Sunday afternoon, we’ll know who will join Oklahoma in this year’s playoff.
Here’s a quick preview of what to look for this weekend –
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
People have wondered all year long if No. 4 Iowa was the real deal. We’ll find out when they play No. 5 Michigan State in Indianapolis Saturday night. For folks like me who’ve been clamoring for more teams to be included in the college football playoff mix, we got our wish this year because this game is, for all intents and purposes, a playoff quarterfinal. Whoever wins gets invited to the party, which makes this game massive.
This is the first time that the Hawkeyes (12-0, 8-0 in conference) have finished the regular season unbeaten since the British Empire ruled over one in four people across the planet earth, Cornell was college football’s national champion and Jack Dempsey was the Heavyweight Champion of the World back in 1922. They might not have any sexy wins this year, but Iowa has defeated some very good teams in Wisconsin, Northwestern and Pitt.
This one will be some old-fashioned, blue collar, physical, classic Midwest football. The Spartans (11-1, 7-1 in conference) quarterback Connor Cook and offensive tackle Jack Conklin are among the best players in the country at their respective positions. Cook has thrown for 2,730 yards with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Iowa QB C.J. Beathard is an excellent caretaker of the football as well, having thrown only three interceptions all year. The Hawkeyes run the football better than most, and they’ll lean heavily on their star rusher Jordan Canzeri, who carried the ball 17 times last week for 140 yards in their 28-20 win over Nebraska.
Ohio State gets the headlines and they are still the defending national champs, but the best program in the Big Ten over the last few years has easily been Michigan State, who have won at least 11 games for the fifth time in six years.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
The winner of this one will gain an automatic berth in one of the upper echelon New Year’s bowl games. Outside of the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, the excellence of the AAC has been this season’s biggest surprise.
No. 19 Houston (11-1, 7-1 in conference) and No. 22 Temple (10-2, 7-1 in conference) have had terrific seasons and there aren’t many coaches in the game right now with brighter prospects than the Cougars’ Tom Hermon and the Owls’ Matt Rhule.
Temple will be playing for its first conference championship since Stevie was made to love her, Aretha was demanding respect and The Godfather was breaking out in a cold sweat back in 1967. Most of the country tuned in and saw that Temple was for real when they lost that 24-20, hard-fought game against Notre Dame a little over a month ago.
But most have yet to lay their eyes on Houston’s electrifying QB Greg Ward, Jr., the 5-foot-11 dynamo from Tyler, Texas who has thrown for 2,502 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing nearly 70% of his pass attempts. He’s also run for 893 yards and an additional 17 scores.
Keep your eyes on Houston wide receiver Demarcus Ayers as well, who has caught 89 balls for 1,140 yards and six TD’s. Over the last three games, he’s been hotter than Pam Grier in Foxy Brown while hauling in 29 catches for 371 yards.
In last year’s matchup, Ward completed 29 of his 33 passes against Temple for 268 yards and two touchdowns. If you want to get excited, check his highlight reel from this year’s Navy game when he passed for 308 yards and three touchdowns, while also gaining 83 yards on 14 carries.
When Temple has the ball, look for running back Jahad Thomas, who has 18 touchdowns and 1,188 rushing yards, to have a heavy workload.
Remember the idiotic chatter about Nick Saban’s dynasty being dead after their fluky loss to Ole Miss early this season? Well, he’s been on some Kool Moe Dee, “How you like me know!?” type stuff to all those feeble-minded naysayers lately.
If No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 in conference) wins, they’ll hold their playoff spot. Expect Florida’s defense to get bludgeoned by Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry, who should sew up the Heisman with another dominating performance. Henry leads the nation in rushing and rushing touchdowns. With one more score on the ground, Henry will tie the SEC single-season record which is held by Auburn’s Tre Mason and Florida’s Tim Tebow.
No. 18 Florida (10-2, 7-1 in conference) probably wishes it had Tebow running the offense right now, because they’ve been putrid over their last few games. Gators coach Jim McElwain has done a tremendous job in getting this squad to overachieve, but their offensive struggles combined with Alabama’s ferocious defense is not gonna be a good look for him.
Much like Floyd Mayweather, the Crimson Tide defense neutralizes their opponent’s best weapon, forcing you to fight from a position of weakness. They’ve owned Florida as of late, winning the last four meetings by a combined score of 143-47. Barring a miracle, Alabama’s dynastic run will continue and they’ll be playing for their fourth national title in the last seven years.
No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 in conference) still has a chance to snag a coveted slot in the playoffs if Alabama and/or Clemson stumbles. Head coach David Shaw has done another outstanding job in Palo Alto this year, negating the popular prediction that the program would stumble back toward mediocrity after coach Jim Harbaugh left to take the 49’ers job.
The Cardinal dominated the Pac-12 North, winning the division for the third time in four seasons.
No. 20 USC (8-4, 6-3 in conference) has had a roller coaster season, but they’ve held on after losing two of their first three conference games, their coach and their lofty status as a national championship contender early on.
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is in the midst of a historical season and is poised to break Barry Sanders’ all-time FBS record of 3,250 all-purpose yards in a season. Both of these teams are loaded with NFL prospects and if USC wants to get their revenge after losing to Stanford 41-31 for their first loss of the season, they’ll need to control the game on the ground.
The Trojans are an outstanding running team that averages 263 rushing yards per game. Justin Davis has run for 271 yards in the last two games. After taking over a team in shambles as a result of the Steve Sarkisian firing, Clay Helton has overseen a strong 5-1 finish to close out the regular season.
This game also features two outstanding quarterbacks in Cody Kessler and Kevin Logan.
No. 1 Clemson (12-0, 8-0 in conference) has never had to sweat about their playoff ranking this year. They’ve been the top dog since the seedings were announced and need to pass one more test to continue their dream season.
But No. 10 North Carolina (11-1, 8-0 in conference) is getting their Christopher Williams on as well, yelling, “Don’t wake me! I’m dreaming!” The Tar Heels, along with Iowa and the American Athletic Conference, have confounded everyone this year with their surprising run after their initial loss to South Carolina. They’ve won 11 consecutive games, powered by a rugged defense and a high-powered offense that averages close to 500 yards per game and can score in a blink.
Clemson’s defense, despite looking shaky last week against South Carolina, is a monster, headlined by linebackers B.J. Godson and Ben Boulware and dominant defensive end Shaq Lawson. They’ll be tested by Carolina’s weapons in what could be the best offense they’ve faced this year.
If Alabama’s Derrick Henry does not win the Heisman this year, it will be because of an absolutely insane performance in this game by Clemson’s stupendous quarterback Deshaun Watson. If it's anything like what he did to UNC last year when he passed for 435 yards and accounted for six touchdowns, we should be in for a special treat.