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Can Georgia’s defense slow down LSU? Most intriguing questions for college football championship weekend

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) scrambles in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. LSU won 50-7. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) scrambles in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. LSU won 50-7. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert/AP)

It’s finally here. Championship weekend is upon us, which means we only have one more month to savor this college football season.

Let’s dive in to the most intriguing questions for Week 15.

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Georgia’s defense is great. But can it slow down this historic LSU attack?

Through 12 games, the Bulldogs have allowed just 14 touchdowns and nine field goals for an average of 10.4 points per game, second only to Clemson nationally. They held Notre Dame, Florida and Auburn to 17 points or fewer, and are one of just two teams this season to not allow more than 20 points in a game (Clemson is the other). They’ve surrendered just 4.12 yards per play, fourth best in the country. They rank second in defensive SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency.

Simply put, along with Ohio State and Clemson, Georgia has one of the best defenses in the country. But it has yet to face an offense like LSU’s.

In a breakthrough year under new passing game coordinator Joe Brady, quarterback Joe Burrow became the first player in SEC history to throw for more than 4,000 yards (4,366) and 40 touchdowns (44) in the same season. Outside of Alabama’s star trio, LSU might have the best receiving corps in the country, led by Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been as steady as they come, averaging 6.8 yards per carry 7.9 yards per catch.

In a recent video breakdown, ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy pointed out how well Georgia has played in man-coverage this season, which will make life difficult for LSU’s receivers. Burrow has picked apart every defense he’s faced so far this season, but he hasn’t faced a secondary as deep or as talented as the Bulldogs’. If Georgia can take away some of Burrow’s easy throws, it has a chance to slow down an offense scoring 48.7 points per game.

What does Wisconsin need to do to upset Ohio State?

Pray to the football gods?

All joking aside, this Wisconsin team is much improved from the one that was dominated, 38-7, by Ohio State earlier in the season. The scary thing is, the Buckeyes might be better, too.

Penn State was able to hang around with Ohio State by containing J.K. Dobbins, who ran for 157 yards but needed 36 carries to do it. The Buckeyes averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in that 28-17 win, but they got big plays when they needed them, with quarterback Justin Fields scrambling for first downs and Chris Olave sealing the victory with a spectacular catch over a defender in the end zone.

The Badgers have the tools on offense and defense to at least give Ohio State some trouble. They pressure the quarterback extremely well, especially with their linebackers, racking up 44 sacks in 12 games, the fifth most in the country.

On offense, they lean on star running back Jonathan Taylor, who is showing no signs of slowing down despite his heavy workload, averaging 188 rushing yards in his past four games. Meanwhile, quarterback Jack Coan has steadily improved this season and is coming off his best game in a Wisconsin uniform, completing 68.2% of his passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.

If Wisconsin can slow down Dobbins, force Fields into some bad decisions and run the ball effectively, it can win. But that’s easier said than done, especially against a team that is making a strong argument to be one of the best in college football history.

Which half was closer to reality in the first Baylor-Oklahoma matchup?

Just a few weeks ago, Baylor had a 31-10 halftime lead over Oklahoma and looked like it was heading toward an improbable undefeated season. Then the Sooners shut out the Bears 24-0 in the second half to claim a stunning victory, keeping their own playoff hopes alive.

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The teams meet again Saturday for the Big 12 title, and the winner will be firmly in the discussion for the fourth and final playoff spot come Selection Sunday. So which team shows up in Arlington: first-half Baylor or second-half Oklahoma?

It’s unlikely we see a similar game of runs, with Baylor storming to a 28-3 lead and Oklahoma countering with a 31-3 streak in the first meeting. It’s probably going to be a back-and-forth affair, with both teams’ offenses capable of scoring quickly. But can Baylor keep up this time around, especially with star wide receiver CeeDee Lamb back for the Sooners?

Baylor and Kansas State were able to slow down Oklahoma’s offense for a half, but nobody has been able to stop Jalen Hurts and Co. for a full 60 minutes. The Sooners rank No. 1 in offensive SP+, and they’ve averaged a national-best 8.36 yards per play. You can’t stop them. You can only hope to contain them.

Baylor was able to do it for a half. If the Bears defense can make adjustments and build off that performance, we could see an unlikely playoff contender emerge.

Will playing Cincinnati for the second time in two weeks spell trouble for Memphis?

Cincinnati’s offense was stuck in a rut after quarterback Desmond Ridder was injured against South Florida, but coach Luke Fickell said Ridder will be “ready to roll” this weekend.

Now, on top of showing their cards in a 34-24 win over the Bearcats last weekend, the Tigers have to deal with a quarterback change as Ridder replaces Ben Bryant.

If Memphis continues to play as well as it has this season, beating Cincinnati again shouldn’t be a problem. But the Tigers didn’t exactly blow the Bearcats away, as Cincinnati pulled within three in the fourth quarter.

At stake for Memphis is a spot in the Cotton Bowl, which would be the first major bowl appearance in program history. Though rumors swirl around coach Mike Norvell, who has become a hot candidate for several Power 5 openings, the Tigers have built themselves into a consistent winner in the Group of 5 in a recruiting hotbed. A Cotton Bowl berth — perhaps against a Big Ten or SEC power — would be a huge opportunity to introduce the program to a national audience and show recruits around the country that Memphis can hang with the nation’s elite programs.

That’s a lot of pressure for a team to deal with, especially one worried about losing its coach. That might open the door for Cincinnati to pull off the upset.

Can Virginia at least hang around against Clemson?

The Las Vegas line opened at Clemson by 24 ½, and that has only increased to 28 ½ as of Wednesday night. So at least the betting public is skeptical that the Cavaliers can keep it close.

But Virginia has been resilient this season, responding to back-to-back losses early to go 5-1 down the stretch and beat rival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003. Quarterback Bryce Perkins embodies that spirit, coming back from a possible career-ending neck injury in his freshman season at Arizona State to lead the Cavs to their best season of the decade.

Clemson, though, has switched into championship mode. The defending national champs have bigger aspirations, and they know they can’t afford a loss if they want to make their path back to the playoff as smooth as possible. If Virginia can stay within two touchdowns of the Tigers, call it a win for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad.

Can Utah make a final playoff statement?

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The Utes have done enough to impress the committee to this point to be ranked No. 5 heading into the Pac-12 title game. But there’s little margin for error for them to keep their playoff hopes alive.

The Utes don’t just need to beat No. 13 Oregon, but beat the Ducks handily to give themselves a leg up in the playoff discussion. Either Oklahoma or Baylor will emerge from the Big 12 title game as a 12-1 Power 5 champion with a more impressive win (or two) than any the Utes will have. But if Utah can show it’s undeniably great Friday night in Santa Clara, California, that would go a long way toward inclusion.

Some smaller questions worth asking

Is this Lane Kiffin’s last game at Florida Atlantic? After a 5-7 dip last season, the Owls are back in the Conference USA championship game and can win 10 games for the second time in Kiffin’s three seasons with a victory over UAB. Kiffin’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Arkansas and Missouri are reportedly interested in hiring the former Tennessee coach. The FAU job was always going to be a stepping stone for Kiffin, but now that some enticing jobs have opened up, he might not be long for Boca Raton.

Can Central Michigan complete a dramatic turnaround? From one coaching reclamation project to another. Jim McElwain went 22-12 at Florida, but that didn’t meet expectations in Gainesville. He landed at Central Michigan, and has the Chippewas 8-4 and in the MAC championship game for the first time since 2009 after they went 1-11 in 2018. He was named MAC Coach of the Year, becoming the first CMU coach to receive the award in 25 years. McElwain’s name has also popped up in coaching searches, so this could be CMU’s one chance to capitalize under his tenure.

Who’s more at risk of losing: No. 19 Boise State or No. 21 Appalachian State? Probably the Mountaineers, simply because of quality of opponent. App State hosts Louisiana for the Sun Belt title, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have already won a school-record 10 games this season. Boise State, meanwhile, hosts Hawaii for the Mountain West crown, and the Broncos are 14-point favorites against a hot-and-cold Rainbow Warriors team. Though the AAC champ is likely headed to the Cotton Bowl, both Boise and App can remain in the hunt for the Group of 5 bid with victories.

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