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College football storylines, Week 16: What’s at stake during championship weekend

It’s 2020, so of course one conference championship game has already been canceled. Louisiana and Coastal Carolina will not play for the Sun Belt title after a positive COVID-19 test within the Chanticleers’ program, eliminating an exciting Top 25 matchup.

As of Thursday, the rest remain on track. Here’s what to watch during championship weekend:

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C-USA championship: UAB at Marshall (Friday, 7 p.m., CBSSN)

If you love defense, this is the game for you. The battle for Conference USA is one of just two conference title games this weekend that features a pair of top 15 defenses: Marshall (7-1) ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense, while UAB (5-3) is No. 15. This game also includes two running backs that rank in the top 30 in rushing yards: Marshall’s Brenden Knox (820 yards) and UAB’s Spencer Brown (740 yards).

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The Thundering Herd are looking for their first C-USA title since 2014, while the Blazers are playing in their third straight championship game after winning it in 2018. Marshall can finish the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for just the fourth time in program history.

MAC championship: Buffalo vs. Ball State (Friday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN)

It’s the Jaret Patterson show. The St. Vincent Pallotti graduate earned bottom-of-the-ballot Heisman Trophy consideration after his 409-yard, eight-touchdown performance against Kent State and leads the nation in rushing average (205 yards per game). He’s had plenty of help, as Buffalo’s offensive line was named a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best blocking unit in the country. The Bulls (5-0) are making their third MAC title game appearance and first since 2018.

For Ball State (5-1), a wild win over Western Michigan last week sealed a trip to Detroit and a chance to win a league title for the first time since 1996. The Cardinals will also be looking for some revenge after Buffalo ended their perfect season in the 2008 title game.

Pac-12 championship: Oregon at No. 13 USC (Friday, 8 p.m., Fox)

Can USC get a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl? Unless there’s chaos at the top of the rankings, the Trojans don’t have any chance of sneaking into the playoff. Still, finishing an undefeated season, however brief, with a conference title could end up saving coach Clay Helton’s job. USC hasn’t been dominant, but Kedon Slovis and Co. are playing extremely well on offense.

Oregon didn’t finish atop the Pac-12 North standings, but Washington’s COVID-19 issues gave the Ducks a second straight conference title game appearance. After being rumored as a candidate to take over at Auburn, Mario Cristobal signed a new six-year deal, $72 million deal with Oregon that moved him from 11th to fourth among Pac-12 coaches in yearly salary. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead might not be long for Eugene if he wants another head-coaching gig, but he’s helped quarterback Tyler Shough deliver a strong season. Beating USC here could do wonders for Oregon’s recruiting in California, though the Ducks’ sixth-ranked 2021 class shows that Cristobal is doing just fine in that regard.

Big Ten championship: No. 14 Northwestern vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Saturday, noon, Fox)

The league had to adjust its rules to make it happen, but after five wins and three postponements, Ohio State is in the conference title game for the fourth straight year. Will beating Northwestern be enough to convince the playoff committee that the Buckeyes are worthy of a semifinal spot? An undefeated Big Ten champion is unlikely to be left out, even if it has only played six games.

Northwestern (6-1), meanwhile, is in the title game for the second time in three years, showing just how good of a job coach Pat Fitzgerald has done turning his “bunch of Rece Davises” into West division contenders. There’s little hope of an upset, but just getting here is a cause for celebration. The Northwestern defense ranks second in the country in efficiency, so if Justin Fields and Co. are a little rusty after their long layoff and aren’t quite ready to play, the Wildcats could create some tense moments.

Big 12 championship: No. 10 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Iowa State (Saturday, noon, ABC)

Can Iowa State sneak into the playoff? Consider a scenario in which Iowa State beats Oklahoma, Alabama beats Florida, Notre Dame beats Clemson, Ohio State beats Northwestern and Tennessee beats Texas A&M. That would leave No. 1 Alabama (11-0), No. 2 Notre Dame (11-0), No. 3 Ohio State (11-0) and … No. 4 Iowa State (8-2)? The Cyclones’ biggest competition in that scenario would likely be a 9-2 Clemson with two losses to Notre Dame, an undefeated Cincinnati (9-0) and maybe an undefeated USC (6-0)? We already know the committee doesn’t respect No. 9 Cincinnati or No. 13 USC.

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Oklahoma (7-2) is looking at a similar playoff fate after being ranked 10th entering the weekend. After starting 1-2 with losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, the Sooners have reeled off six straight wins by an average of 26 points, and a conference title would at the very least guarantee them a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Quarterback Spencer Rattler showed enough progress this season that Oklahoma should be considered an early 2021 playoff contender.

ACC championship: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 2 Notre Dame (Saturday, 4 p.m., ABC)

It’s a de facto playoff game for Clemson (9-1), but less so for Notre Dame (10-0). While the Tigers would likely be eliminated from contention with a loss after falling to Notre Dame earlier this season, the Fighting Irish can afford a close defeat. Outside of getting blown out in humiliating fashion, Notre Dame is playoff-bound.

This time, it’ll be Trevor Lawrence playing quarterback for Clemson instead of stud freshman D.J. Uiagalelei. The likely No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft has never lost an ACC championship game, but the Tigers have never played a conference opponent as good as Notre Dame. Will coach Brian Kelly and the Irish play it close to the vest knowing bigger and better things are ahead, or will they try to knock Clemson out of the playoff? The first quarter could dictate how this game is going to play out from a competitive standpoint.

Mountain West championship: Boise State vs. No. 24 San Jose State (Saturday, 4:15 p.m., Fox)

There might not be a better way to tell the story of 2020 than through what San Jose State has endured. After local COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County forced them to find a new home, the Spartans spent 12 days at Humboldt State University, 327 miles up the coast of California, and later moved their practices to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, which is where Saturday’s title game will be held. Through it all, San Jose State (6-0) is off to its best start since 1939, are ranked for the first time since 2012, and is seeking its first Mountain West title in its first championship game appearance. Beating the Broncos (5-1), who are making their fourth consecutive appearance in the game and are riding a 14-game conference winning streak, would be an awesome end to an awesome season.

SEC championship: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 7 Florida (Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS)

Does Florida have a chance to pull off the upset? This matchup was looking much more enticing before the Gators lost to LSU on a 57-yard field goal after Marco Wilson’s unforgettable shoe toss. Still, quarterback Kyle Trask and the Florida offense might be able to keep up with Alabama’s high-flying offense if it gets into a track meet.

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Along with Trask, there are two other Heisman candidates playing in Atlanta. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (3,321 yards, 27 touchdowns, three interceptions) and wide receiver DeVonta Smith (83 catches, 1,327 yards, 15 touchdowns) have put up ridiculous numbers this season for an offense that leads the nation in efficiency. Even scarier, the Crimson Tide defense has improved after a rocky start and the kicker is no longer a liability. This might be Nick Saban’s best Alabama team.

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American championship: No. 23 Tulsa at No. 9 Cincinnati (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC)

One of the best games of the day doesn’t have playoff stakes, just two good teams looking to make a statement.

Cincinnati (9-0) has been routinely ignored by the playoff committee, and a lack of Top 25 wins is a big reason why. It’s prompted AAC commissioner Michael Aresco to call for the return of the BCS because “it would be a fairer system than what I’m seeing now.” He’s certainly got a point. The Bearcats can only play the schedule in front of them, and they’ve largely dominated. They rank ninth in ESPN’s SP+, a tempo- and, crucially, opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. That’s ahead of Texas A&M (No. 14) and Iowa State (No. 11), who sit fifth and sixth, respectively, in the playoff rankings.

Tulsa, meanwhile, is probably just happy to be ranked at all. The program hasn’t been in the polls since 2010 and has been ranked in just five different seasons since 1953. This is Tulsa’s fifth appearance in a conference championship game, but first in the AAC. Led by conference Defensive Player of the Year Zaven Collins, the Golden Hurricane are looking to end Cincinnati’s 19-game home winning streak and deny the Bearcats a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl game.

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