NCAAF Teams
Bill Connelly, ESPN Staff Writer 54d

The most important question for each college football conference championship game

College Football, LSU Tigers, Georgia Bulldogs, Baylor Bears, Oklahoma Sooners, Oregon Ducks, Utah Utes, Clemson Tigers, Virginia Cavaliers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Memphis Tigers, Cincinnati Bearcats

The typical buffet features lots of carbs and empty calories up front, designed to fill you up before you get to the good stuff, the protein farther down the row.

College football's Championship Week is the opposite -- the spread isn't nearly as large as normal, but there's no filler. It's all protein. So let's work our way through this gorgeous buffet, asking big questions for the sport's big games at every level, from LSU vs. Georgia to Cincinnati at Memphis to UW Whitewater at Mary Hardin-Baylor.

(Note: All times below are Eastern. All games are on Saturday unless noted otherwise.)

SEC: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia (4 p.m., CBS)

Who wins: New school or old school? This year, one of the last holdouts came over to the dark side. LSU finally, officially eschewed its Big Burly Manball existence to move toward a spread-intensive, pass-heavy, fullback-light offense. The effects were immediate and staggering. Ed Orgeron's Tigers are 12-0 for the first time since 2011, they're averaging 49 points per game, and quarterback Joe Burrow is probably about to become the school's first Heisman winner since Billy Cannon in 1959.

Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs, however, remain holdouts. They are 11-1 thanks to the tried-and-true SEC formula of defense (first in defensive SP+), special teams (first in ST SP+), defense, running the football and defense. LSU has scored fewer than 36 points only once all year, but UGA has allowed more than 17 just once. Per SP+, the Bulldogs boast the best run defense in the FBS and the third-best pass defense. They know everything you want to do and meet it with three waiting defenders.

Something's got to give. Can Georgia move the ball effectively enough with star running back D'Andre Swift battling a shoulder injury? If the Dawgs actually try to throw the ball, how well will it work out with receiver Lawrence Cager out and George Pickens suspended for a half? Has Smart been keeping some offense-friendly cards close to the vest? Are Burrow and his loaded receiving corps too much for any defense at this point?

SP+ projection: LSU 29, Georgia 27


Big Ten: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (8 p.m., Fox)

Can Wisconsin do anything to hurt the Buckeyes' defense? Ohio State beat Wisconsin by 31 points on Oct. 26, but for about 35 minutes, Wisconsin had crafted a solid "how to beat Ohio State" recipe. It played strong defense, used dreary conditions to its advantage and allowed only one touchdown in OSU's first six drives. Two plays after blocking a punt early in the third quarter, the Badgers scored to make it a 10-7 game.

Things went south from there, though. Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins ripped off big runs, and Chase Young started harassing Wisconsin QB Jack Coan on seemingly every pass attempt. The Badgers' defense did an admirable job -- it always does -- but the offense gave Wisconsin nothing.

Can that change? Michigan found success on OSU with some early-down vertical passing, and early in the year Coan did the same (against defenses far worse than OSU's). But that wasn't part of the game plan in Columbus. Are the Badgers capable of taking interesting risks, or is this another "hand it to Jonathan Taylor a million times and hope it's a close game in the fourth quarter (and it probably won't be)" game?

SP+ projection: Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 20


Big 12: No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor (noon, ABC)

Was the first half or the second half more accurate on Nov. 16? Three weeks ago, OU and Baylor played one of the best games of the season. Matt Rhule's Bears raced to a 28-3 lead, and the Sooners eventually reeled them in, winning 34-31 with a late field goal.

It was as if the QBs traded places at halftime.

First half: Baylor's Charlie Brewer 13-for-18, 140 yards, 2 TDs, sacked once; OU's Jalen Hurts 8-for-14, 80 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, sacked three times 

Second half: Hurts 22-for-28, 217 yards, 3 TDs, sacked once; Brewer 5-for-11, 54 yards, 1 INT, sacked three times

Baylor did its typically brilliant job of preventing big plays (OU lacking receiver CeeDee Lamb helped), but the Sooners' second-half advantages were bigger than the Bears' first-half advantages.

So what of that is more likely to happen a second time? OU has been the better team over the full season and has Lamb back, but Baylor was brilliant down the stretch, outscoring Texas and Kansas by 69 combined points to rise from 21st to 14th in SP+. Have the Bears made up enough ground? Can they find that first-half mojo again?

SP+ projection: Oklahoma 34, Baylor 28


ACC: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia (7:30 p.m., ABC)

How much of the underdog script can UVa follow? Virginia picked a good time to finally beat rival Virginia Tech: The Cavaliers' fourth-quarter surge and 39-30 win last week gave them their first Coastal title and a shot at the ACC's Goliath. I guess that's a good thing?

The Hoos beat Tech despite an efficiency disadvantage (success rate: VT 43%, UVa 36%); they compensated with big plays (seven gains of 30-plus yards), six sacks, superior red zone execution and a little bit of turnover luck. And honestly, if they're going to pull an all-time upset this weekend, it'll probably be with the same recipe.

UVa is a four-touchdown underdog against the defending national champs, and Clemson has again looked the part of a contender since an early scare against UNC. With a spread this big, UVa's chances are based entirely on high-variability underdog tactics and good bounces. UVa has a pass rush that could get to Trevor Lawrence, and quarterback Bryce Perkins and receiver Hasise Dubois are big-play threats. That's a good start. (But probably not nearly enough.)

SP+ projection: Clemson 37, Virginia 16


American: No. 20 Cincinnati at No. 17 Memphis (3:30 p.m., ABC)

What's Desmond Ridder got in the tank? With the American East title already clinched last week, Cincy coach Luke Fickell decided to sit his ailing starting QB, who was battling a shoulder injury and had produced a ghastly 64.6 passer rating against USF and Temple. Freshman Ben Bryant took over and provided more pop than the passing game has seen since maybe mid-October, but a couple of picks were costly in a 34-24 loss at Memphis.

The Bearcats are returning to Memphis, and all indications are that Ridder will start. He probably won't throw well against a solid Memphis secondary, but if he can add steadiness to the run game (he averages 6.3 yards per non-sack carry), the trade might be worth it. Cincy was competitive enough last week that Memphis couldn't keep many game-plan cards close to its vest, but the Tigers still have devastating speed and a dynamic, balanced offense. Ball control could be UC's best friend if Ridder is capable of risking some hits.

SP+ projection: Memphis 36, Cincy 21


Mountain West: Hawai'i at No. 19 Boise State (4 p.m., ESPN)

Was the late defensive surge by Hawai'i a mirage? When BSU and Hawai'i played on Oct. 12, the Broncos did whatever the heck they wanted offensively. Despite QB Hank Bachmeier getting injured, they created 11 scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent's 40) in 15 drives and put up 518 yards and 59 points in a 22-point win. Bachmeier is still out, but with Jaylon Henderson as the primary QB, the Broncos averaged 43 points per game down the stretch.

Out of nowhere, though, the Hawai'i defense painted a couple of late masterpieces. The Rainbow Warriors clinched the MWC West by allowing just 18 combined points in wins over UNLV and SDSU; Rebel and Aztec QBs averaged just 4 yards per pass attempt on passing downs. BSU's offense is far better than UNLV's or SDSU's, obviously, but if the Warriors can actually take advantage when the Broncos are behind schedule, they could have the offense to spring an upset.

SP+ projection: Boise State 40, Hawai'i 26


Sun Belt: Louisiana at No. 21 Appalachian State (noon, ESPN)

What has changed since Oct. 9? This is a rematch of one of the odder and more compelling games of the year. In a low-scoring early-October affair, App State overcame a massive field position deficit and survived UL in Lafayette 17-7, thanks primarily to red zone execution and an incredible 10-minute, 97-yard drive in the fourth quarter. The Ragin' Cajuns had the Mountaineers right where they wanted them but just couldn't quite take advantage.

Since then, UL has gone on a rampage. The Cajuns were 68th in SP+ after the App loss but have since gone 6-0, winning games by an average of 40-15 and rising to 32nd. They have one of the best run games in the country. App hasn't exactly fallen off, though. The Mountaineers are 28th in SP+ and have suffered only a rivalry glitch to Georgia Southern. We should get the best version of these teams on Saturday; can Louisiana close the deal this time?

SP+ projection: Appalachian State 32, UL 28


Conference USA: UAB at Florida Atlantic (1:30 p.m., CBSSN)

Can UAB snuff out the explosions? Safe to say, UAB's got this "defense" thing figured out. Bill Clark's Blazers won last year's Conference USA title thanks to a No. 45 ranking in defensive SP+, lost 10 of their top 12 tacklers in the offseason, then put out a unit that ranks 25th. That's wizardry right there. They are almost equally dominant against the run and the pass, and it allowed them to win the C-USA West again despite a sketchy offense (118th in offensive SP+).

FAU's got a solid defense itself (47th in defensive SP+), but the Owls create offensive explosions better than anyone else in the league. Running back Malcolm Davidson averages 6.4 yards per carry; tight end Harrison Bryant averages 15.8 yards per catch; and receivers John Mitchell and Tavaris Harrison average 14.5. FAU is 16th in marginal explosiveness. Can the Owls create enough big plays to keep the Blazers at bay? Can UAB score enough for that to matter?

SP+ projection: FAU 27, UAB 19


MAC: Central Michigan vs. Miami (Ohio) (noon, ESPN2)

Can Miami avoid being sunk by negative plays? Jim McElwain's first CMU squad caught fire late in the season, winning six of its last seven and rising from 120th to 83rd in SP+. The Chippewas are sturdy on both sides of the ball but especially when it comes to line play. They run the ball efficiently and prevent you from doing the same.

Miami, meanwhile, runs the ball a lot -- running backs average about 30 carries per game -- but doesn't actually do it very well. The RedHawks are just 120th in rushing marginal efficiency and 125th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). CMU's defense: 38th in rushing marginal efficiency, second in stuff rate. If Miami can't keep players such as linebacker Troy Brown and end Sean Adesanya out of the backfield and avoid constant second- or third-and-longs, nothing else matters, not even Miami's big-play pass potential (top four receivers: 19.3 yards per catch).

SP+ projection: CMU 30, Miami 23


The smaller-school playoffs are rolling! If you want to expand your horizons and coax maximum enjoyment out of this weekend's action, keep an eye on the smaller schools, too. High-stakes and high-leverage games abound this weekend.

FCS playoffs (ESPN3)

Last week's first-round action whittled the field from 24 to 16, and now the top eight seeds join the fray. While the top two teams -- North Dakota State and James Madison -- probably won't be significantly tested, there are some pretty tight battles further down the list.

This week's most interesting game: Austin Peay at Sacramento State (9 p.m., ESPN3). Former Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor inherited a Sac State program that had ranked in the SP+ 100s for three of the past four seasons. The Hornets are currently a revelatory seventh and 9-3 with losses only to Arizona State, Fresno State and a top-five Weber State. APSU is 11th, though. Former UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth has upgraded what new Charlotte head coach Will Healy had been building. Either of these teams could make a deep run here.

SP+ projections: North Dakota State 35, Nicholls State 22; Central Arkansas 28, Illinois State 25; Montana State 31, Albany 26; James Madison 40, Monmouth 18; South Dakota State 34, Northern Iowa 24; Montana 32, Southeastern Louisiana 24; Weber State 30, Kennesaw State 26; Sacramento State 32, Austin Peay 28


SWAC championship: Southern at Alcorn State (4 p.m., ESPNU)

The Celebration Bowl has been an overall success, drawing more than 30,000 attendees for three of its first four games and quickly becoming a fun part of the opening day of the bowl season. It could use some new blood, though. NC A&T will be the MEAC's representative for the fourth time, and only Alcorn State and Grambling (twice each) have represented the SWAC.

It'll take an upset to change that. Although Southern is decent on both sides of the ball (51st on offense and 57th on defense, per SP+), Alcorn is far more well-rounded (27th and 23rd, respectively). QB Felix Harper, a trio of go-to receivers and a deep, attack-from-all-angles defense give the Braves excellent odds of Celebrating once more.

SP+ projection: Alcorn State 32, Southern 24


Division II playoffs

The Division II playoffs don't tend to follow much of a standard script. The teams ranked first (defending champ Valdosta State), third, fifth, seventh and ninth in the year-end polls failed to reach the quarterfinals. One team (Texas A&M-Commerce) has taken down two of those five. The Lions' reward: facing another heavyweight, Minnesota State (the No. 1 team in Div. II SP+).

This week's most interesting game: Northwest Missouri State at Ferris State (1 p.m., Stretch Internet). The closest projection, per SP+, comes from the game that features two top-10 teams. Ferris State came within two points of last year's national title, and NWMSU is the closest thing to a Bama/Clemson at the Division II level, having won four of the past 10 titles. The Bearcats had fallen off a bit but are peaking late in 2019.

SP+ projections: Slippery Rock 36, Notre Dame (Ohio) 28; Lenoir-Rhyne 33, West Florida 22; Ferris State 31, NW Missouri State 24; Minnesota State 33, Texas A&M-Commerce 25


Division III playoffs

It was an outright shock that Mount Union, the school with 20 Division III finals appearances in 24 years, lost in the second round of this year's playoffs. It probably shouldn't have been, though: UMU's conqueror, North Central (Illinois), has perhaps the most dynamic and prolific offense in the country at any level.

This week's most interesting game: Wisconsin-Whitewater at Mary Hardin-Baylor (1 p.m., Stretch Internet). With UWW and UMHB playing in Saturday's quarterfinals, that means only one member of the D3 triumvirate -- these schools and Mount Union have won all but two of this century's Division III titles -- will reach the semis. That's mind-blowing. UMHB has the edge here, but not an insurmountable one.

Hansen Ratings projection*: Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW Whitewater 16; Salisbury 35, Muhlenberg 37; North Central (Illinois) 47, Delaware Valley 24; Wheaton (Illinois) 33, St. John's (Minnesota) 22

*I haven't established SP+ ratings for Division III yet, but Logan Hansen's system works well -- among other things, it had North Central ranked ahead of Mount Union heading into last week.

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