Five College Football Playoff games of impact for Week 14
Conference Championship Weekend has arrived, providing the final data points for the College Football Playoff committee to consider before choosing the four semifinalists, as well as the rest of the New Year’s Six bowl participants.
Here are the five Saturday games that will determine how the playoff race concludes.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Georgia
SEC Championship in Atlanta
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS
Last season’s national finalists have been on a collision course throughout the fall. This can now be considered a de facto quarterfinal game with the winner certain to be among the chosen quartet. Alabama could conceivably still be included with a 12-1 mark should the Crimson Tide come up short against the Bulldogs, but they are in no mood to test that theory this time around.
Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa was introduced to the world in the second half of that title contest with the Bulldogs. Though he made a few mistakes, like the ill-advised sack he took just one play before hitting the winning TD pass, he certainly showed flashes of what the offense would become as this season’s regular starter. Just how devastating is the Tide aerial attack? Tagovailoa’s top five receivers all have at least 498 yards and a minimum of five TD catches. He’s faced stronger pass rushes over the last month, but Georgia’s front line has struggled to mount consistent pressure. The Bulldogs’ secondary featuring CB Deandre Baker is excellent, but Alabama can run the ball a bit, too, to the tune over 205 yards a game. But the Bulldogs boast the SEC’s most potent ground attack, averaging a shade under 260 yards. Alabama is well equipped to stop a one-dimensional game plan, however, with LBs Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings working behind a disruptive front line. Georgia QB Jake Fromm will have to do enough through the air to give outstanding RBs D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield room to operate.
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Texas
Big 12 Championship in Arlington, Texas
Saturday, noon ET, ABC
The wisdom of the league’s decision to add an extra game when it already had a full round-robin schedule can and undoubtedly will be debated. But fans can’t feel too bad about getting to see a rematch of the classic Red River showdown these two archrivals staged in October that forever etched freshman Longhorns PK Cameron Dicker (AKA Dicker the Kicker) into the history books.
Sooners QB Kyler Murray is nevertheless the game’s headliner. The dual threat looks to make a strong closing argument for Heisman voters as well as avenge the team’s lone loss of the campaign. As has been the case throughout the year, he and big-play WR Marquise Brown will likely need to put up big numbers to compensate for OU’s deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. Texas QB Sam Ehlinger has been playing through a shoulder sprain that might limit his downfield range, but he has shifty weapons like WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey who can turn short throws into big gainers. Nevertheless, despite the temptation to attack the Sooners’ leaky secondary, the Longhorns might be better served by feeding RBs Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram to control the clock.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 21 Northwestern
Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox
The Buckeyes picked a good time to author their most complete performance of the season in last week’s dismantling of archrival Michigan, clinching the Big Ten East and putting themselves back in the playoff mix. But any regression to the inconsistency they’ve shown at times this year could spell trouble against the Wildcats, who won their last seven conference games to claim the West and earn this shot at the title.
So the burning question is, which OSU team will show up? The defense that nearly let Maryland beat it two weeks ago looked like a different group altogether against the Wolverines, with DE Dre’Mont Jones and LB Tuf Borland controlling the neutral zone. Northwestern’s running game has been inconsistent at best, but freshman RB Isaiah Bowser has broken out of late. Gritty Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson rarely gives up on a play and could make OSU pay for failing to maintain gap integrity, but his group isn’t suited to comeback mode. Buckeyes QB Dwayne Haskins, already with 42 TD passes for the season, should have another big night if he continues to take care of the ball. The Northwestern defense, anchored by LBs Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, must limit explosive plays, but OSU WR Parris Campbell could make that difficult.
No. 2 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh
ACC Championship in Charlotte
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
The Tigers face their last obstacle in their bid for yet another playoff invitation, and it looks a lot less formidable as the Coastal Division champion Panthers were throttled at Miami in their regular-season finale. Pitt must regroup quickly to regain the form that helped it get here to give Clemson a run for its money. There is speculation that a loss wouldn’t necessarily eliminate Clemson from the playoff mix, but the Tigers would be advised not to take that chance given the ACC’s relative lack of depth compared to, say, another conference occupying roughly the same geographic region.
During the Panthers’ four-game conference winning streak that allowed them to seal the division, RBs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall were running wild enabling QB Kenny Pickett to make easy throws. The whole unit ground to a halt last week, however, which doesn’t bode well for this encounter with DT Christian Wilkins and the Tigers’ formidable front. Clemson gave up more points than it would have liked while running past South Carolina and will almost certainly be out to prove itself playoff ready this time out. There are few concerns about the Tigers’ offense. QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne are a dangerous combination who could produce an electric play at any time. Panthers S Damar Hamlin will do his best to minimize them.
Memphis at No. 7 Central Florida
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
UCF kept its quest for a second consecutive undefeated campaign intact. But the Knights’ win at South Florida last week came at a huge cost as star QB McKenzie Milton went down with a horrific leg injury. But if they can find a way to get past the Tigers in a rematch of last year’s AAC title tilt, they are at the very least guaranteed another major bowl berth. Memphis, however, has overcome a slow start to the season and would love to cap it off with a conference crown.
The UCF defense, subject to considerable criticism early in the campaign, has shown much improvement in its last two outings, limiting Cincinnati and South Florida to a total of 23 points. LB Nate Evans and Co. must again be at their best to slow the Tigers’ one-two RB punch of Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. The Knights’ offense will now be in the hands of QB Darriel Mack, who does have some game experience but not of this high-stakes nature. It’s probably asking too much to expect UCF to approach its season average of 43.1 points without Milton at the helm, but WR Gabe Davis and RB Greg McCrae will be there to help. LB Bryce Huff and the Memphis defense are sure to bring plenty of heat.