It’s conference championship Saturday with a twist — title contenders on one side and mediocre multiple-loss teams on the other. It’s reminiscent of the old, thankfully trashed, Bowl Championship Series, in which margin of victory could be the deciding factor in who will be in and who will be out when the College Football Playoff pairings are announced on Sunday.
Of the four big conference finals — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC — only one game has a single-digit spread, the Red River Rivalry rematch between Oklahoma and Texas. Northwestern (Big Ten) and Pittsburgh (ACC) are actually playing for championships, despite combining for a whopping nine losses — five by Pitt, which is coming off an embarrassing 24-3 defeat to Miami. Northwestern, winner of the Big Ten’s weak sister (also known as the league’s West division) has one of its losses to four-win Akron.
Clearly, this won’t be a challenge for Clemson (-27¹/₂), which has outscored its past six ACC opponents by a combined 302-49, and will force Pittsburgh to absorb a similar beatdown. Even with a loss to Georgia, Alabama (-13) likely would be in the playoff, though the Crimson Tide won’t have to concern themselves with such a scenario. With runaway Heisman Trophy favorite Tua Tagovailoa under center in last year’s national championship game, the Tide outscored Georgia 26-10. They are even better now, while the Bulldogs have regressed, and it will show in a rematch that fails to live up to the original.
With undefeated Notre Dame idle, that leaves the last playoff spot to Oklahoma or Ohio State, one-loss teams with similar subpar résumés, each needing to make a statement. Ohio State (-14), coming off that 62-39 thrashing of Michigan, has a much easier task against Northwestern, and will prove that blowout of the Wolverines was no fluke. The Sooners lost to Texas (+8) in the first meeting, Oct. 6, and their defense, allowing 47.2 points per game over the past month, has done all it can to take them out of consideration for the playoff.
Only Kyler Murray’s dramatics have kept Oklahoma alive, and his best will be needed again to take down the Longhorns in a typical defenseless Big 12 shootout decided in the final minute.
Buffalo (-3¹/₂) over Northern Illinois (Mid-American, at Detroit): Even Buffalo’s teams have more success these days than ours. The NFL’s Bills are showing signs of life lately, with two consecutive wins, the Sabres have won 10 games in a row, the Bulls’ basketball team is ranked, and their football team is headed to the first 11-win season in program history.
Washington (-5¹/₂) over Utah (Pac-12, at Santa Clara, Calif.): With three losses by five points or less, the Huskies are better than their 9-3 record, and they’re certainly better than Utah — the champion of the nation’s worst division, the Pac-12 South — which they already beat by two touchdowns on the road.
Drake (+42¹/₂) over IOWA STATE: Spring games have more meaning. Virtually nothing is at stake for either team. Always take the underdog with something to prove in that situation, especially given Iowa State’s shaky play in recent weeks.
APPALACHIAN STATE (-16¹/₂) over Louisiana (Sun Belt): The only conference championship game with a higher spread is the ACC. This will be just as competitive.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE (-23) over East Carolina: Since September, East Carolina’s only win came against one-win Connecticut. That’s all you need to know about the state of the Pirates, who allowed 56 points and 394 yards through the air to Cincinnati’s passing-challenged offense last Saturday.
SOUTH CAROLINA (-30¹/₂) over Akron: The Gamecocks have covered the past four weeks, and their offense, which put up 35 points on Clemson’s elite defense last weekend, is dynamic. Akron’s disappointing season ends Saturday. It won’t be on a high note.
VIRGINIA TECH (-3¹/₂) over Marshall: Because there aren’t enough mediocre teams in meaningless bowls apparently, this game was added — after an earlier contest against East Carolina was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence — to give the Hokies the chance to be eligible after knocking off Virginia last Saturday. So, technically, there is meaning — if playing in the Quick Lane Bowl holds any significance for you.
Middle Tennessee (- 1¹/₂) over UAB (Conference USA): In Hollywood, UAB would triumph, capping off its first winning season since 2004 with a conference championship. In reality, not much has changed since they met in the regular-season finale, a 27-3 Middle Tennessee victory.
Stanford (-3) over CALIFORNIA: This rivalry has become as one-sided as Ohio State-Michigan, with Stanford winning the past eight meetings, a trend that will continue. The Bears, last in the Pac-12 in scoring and total offense, just can’t keep up with quarterback K.J. Costello and the Cardinal.
Memphis (+3) over CENTRAL FLORIDA (American Athletic): The Knights’ 24-game winning streak ends this week. McKenzie Milton’s absence will be felt against motivated Memphis, which lost last year’s AAC title game in double overtime to Central Florida and by a single point earlier this year, and Darrell Henderson, the conference’s single-season rushing record-holder.
Fresno State (+2¹/₂) over BOISE STATE (Mountain West): These teams, meeting for the fourth time in two seasons, know each other better than their own relatives. Familiarity breeds contempt — and nail-biters.
Best bets: Alabama, Ohio State, Texas
This season (best bets): 105-104-1 (18-19-1)
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