Conference championship weekend is finally here. Here’s a look at the biggest storylines heading into the most important games of the year (all games Saturday):
Is this really Georgia’s year?
SEC: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Alabama, 4 p.m., CBS
While much of this college football season has been unpredictable, Georgia’s dominance has never been questioned. The Bulldogs rose to No. 1 in the polls in Week 7 and didn’t look back, rolling to big wins week after week thanks to a historically great defense. But if there’s one knock against Georgia, it’s the lack of quality opponents.
The Dawgs faced just three teams currently ranked in the College Football Playoff committee’s Top 25 — No. 20 Clemson, No. 22 Arkansas and No. 23 Kentucky. Georgia beat those teams by a combined score of 77-16, so it’s not as if the Dawgs have shown any signs of weakness. But an Alabama team coached by Nick Saban, even one as vulnerable as this year’s Crimson Tide, is a different beast.
There’s a long-running joke of how long it’s been since Georgia last won a national title — 14,947 days as of Saturday, to be exact — and any Dawgs fan, player or coach is fooling themselves if they don’t think all of that pressure won’t resurface in Atlanta. Of course, there’s a certain swagger about this Georgia team that feels a little bit different. In fact, Alabama hasn’t been this big of an underdog since 2008, Saban’s second season in Tuscaloosa.
Georgia’s defense is championship caliber, but how will it handle Heisman Trophy front-runner Bryce Young? Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV has been unflappable so far, but what happens if the Dawgs fall behind early?
Thanks to its dominant 12-0 start, the Bulldogs are a playoff lock no matter what happens Saturday. But a win over what’s been an unconquerable foe would go a long way toward exercising those demons.
Can Cincinnati finish this?
American Athletic Conference: No. 21 Houston at No. 4 Cincinnati, 4 p.m., ABC
Don’t stumble now, Cincinnati. The Bearcats have defied the odds by putting themselves in great position to be the first Group of Five team to make the playoff. After a perfect 12-0 start, it’s win-and-in against Houston on Saturday night.
But this won’t be a cake walk for Cincinnati. Led by a talented offense and a surprisingly effective defense, Houston has rolled to 11 straight wins after a season-opening loss to Texas Tech. Quarterback Clayton Tune has been exceptional of late, throwing 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past five games. The defense ranks 15th in ESPN’s SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency.
There’s no question Cincinnati is the most talented team in the American Athletic Conference, but Houston is a close second. The Bearcats won’t have the same athletic advantage they’ve enjoyed for most of this season.
With defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a former Bearcats assistant, taking over as the head coach at Notre Dame after Brian Kelly’s departure to LSU, Luke Fickell figures to stick around for the long haul at Cincinnati as the program moves into the Big 12. Quarterback Desmond Ridder will leave for the NFL after this season, but this is a team set up for future success. Assuming all goes well Saturday, this might be the first of many playoff berths under Fickell.
Will Iowa ruin everything?
Big Ten: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 13 Iowa, 8 p.m., Fox
Michigan finally broke the streak against hated rival Ohio State, beating the Buckeyes for the first time in 10 years. It gave the Wolverines their first Big Ten championship game berth since its inception in 2011 and a shot at their first playoff appearance. That is, if Iowa doesn’t get in the way.
The Hawkeyes needed a loss by Wisconsin last weekend just to get into this game, but they’ve been one of the most solid teams in the country all year. The offense remains one of the nation’s worst, but the defense is championship caliber. That’s the only thing that stands in the way of one of the biggest moments in Michigan football history Saturday.
There’s no way to put into words how devastating it would be for the Wolverines to finally vanquish Ohio State, only to fall short in the conference title game and miss out on a chance to play for the national championship. That’s why it’s almost unfathomable to think Michigan loses Saturday, even if Iowa can do enough on defense to keep the score close.
A new era for the Big 12?
Big 12: No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Baylor, noon, ABC
Nobody expected Oklahoma State to be this good this season. The Cowboys have ridden one of the nation’s best defenses — fifth in ESPN’s SP+ rankings — to the Big 12 championship game. If they win Saturday and Alabama and Cincinnati both lose, they’re sitting pretty for the final playoff rankings.
But even if this season does not end with a playoff berth, it signals a potential changing of the guard in the Big 12. With Oklahoma and Texas leaving for the SEC, Oklahoma State and Baylor have emerged as the new leaders of the conference. The Bears have managed to keep coach Dave Aranda during this whirlwind hiring cycle, a big step toward establishing a consistent winner in a conference welcoming Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and UCF.
Oklahoma has been the face of football in the Big 12 under coach Lincoln Riley, but his departure for USC opens the door for another contender to emerge. Saturday’s game is officially the start of a new era in the conference.
Are Pitt and Wake Forest built to last?
ACC: No. 15 Pittsburgh vs. No. 16 Wake Forest, 8 p.m., ABC
With Clemson taking a dip this season and Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech still struggling to recapture their former glory, the ACC has been wide-open this season. So it’s only fitting that two programs made a surprise run to the championship game.
Pitt has enjoyed the success of fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has risen from relative anonymity to the potential top quarterback in the 2022 NFL draft. His counterpart Saturday night, Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, is another late bloomer, throwing a career-high 34 touchdown passes this season after combining for 33 in his first three seasons.
The question is, which team is better set up for future success? Despite joining the team in 2018, Hartman is only a redshirt sophomore. Dave Clawson, the ACC Coach of the Year, recently signed a long-term extension to stay at Wake Forest. Will Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi be able to keep up the same level of success when his star quarterback leaves for the NFL?
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Clemson’s downturn seemingly won’t last long, given coach Dabo Swinney’s strength as a recruiter. And it’s only a matter of time before the conference’s blue bloods get things figured out (although people have been saying that for years). Only time will tell whether this was the start of a changing in the guard or just another referendum on the unpredictability of the sport.