December is upon us, and that means it’s conference championship weekend in college football’s top division. Arguably this is the most consequential group of title game matchups in the four-team playoff era, with all five of the so-called power leagues still in the mix.
So will the action on the field live up to its billing? We can only hope.
As usual, in this space we present your weekend viewing options in order of potential to entertain, with a heavy emphasis this week on each game’s level of magnitude in determining the all-important final rankings. Your mileage will vary, of course, particularly if you have a rooting interest, but here is our arbitrary top seven.
SEC – No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 8 Alabama
Time/TV: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS.
Why watch: That these perennial powers made it to Atlanta is not a shock. There is, however, not the usual level of certainty regarding the league’s playoff standing entering the contest. The Bulldogs, of course, are in with a win. A Crimson Tide win would – probably – elevate them into the top four, but it might depend on some other results, and Georgia’s position would become precarious with a loss. Bottom line, both sides will treat it as a must-win, so the intensity level should be dialed up to 11. Georgia’s foremost concern at game time is the way its ground defense was uncharacteristically gashed by Georgia Tech in its most recent outing. Alabama QB Jalen Milroe figures to test those waters himself early on or let RB Jase McClellan do so. Either way, Bulldogs LB Smael Mondon will hope for stronger play in front of him in the trenches. Alabama might have similar concerns, however, after letting the same Auburn offense that had been stymied by New Mexico State a week earlier run for 244 yards. That could be good news for Bulldogs RBs Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton, but QB Carson Beck figures to provide even more air cover. Tide LB Dallas Turner is a hard-hitting TFL machine, but he can’t handle the Bulldogs’ offensive-line on his own.
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Why it could disappoint: You’d have to go back a long way – like to the 2018 national championship game against Clemson – to find the last time Alabama looked truly overmatched. Even so, the Tide have sustained a few multi-score losses since then, and last week’s performance indicates another could be in the offing. Yes, as we mentioned the Bulldogs didn’t dominate either, but they’ve looked a lot more capable of doing so in stretches this season.
Pac-12 – No. 3 Washington vs. No. 5 Oregon
Time/TV: Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC.
Why watch: It is a bitter irony that the last Pac-12 championship game as we know it is the biggest in its history, as the winner in Las Vegas is all but assured of a spot in the final four-team playoff. If it’s anything like the first meeting, a Washington victory in a 36-33 nail biter on Oct. 14, matters won’t be settled until well into the desert night. Another high-scoring affair seems likely with both quarterbacks set to provide final arguments in the Heisman debate. Oregon’s Bo Nix has had the hotter hand of late, increasing his completion rate to 78.6% and his season passing TD total to 37, concurrently assisting WR Troy Franklin’s bid for the Biletnikoff Award. Nix has only been picked twice, but Huskies CB Mishael Powell can go the distance if he gets his hands on another. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. has needed to take more chances due to a less dominant defense, but he can usually count on WRs Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk to get him out of jams. But it might be up to RB Dillon Johnson to provide more ground support this time, as Penix is sure to be visited frequently by Ducks DL Brandon Dorlus and Jordan Burch.
Why it could disappoint: Washington’s ability to keep things close when everything isn’t clicking will be put to the test here. About the only aspect of the Ducks’ game that has been shaky is the place kicking – just 10-of-16 on field goal attempts – which might explain some of coach Dan Lanning’s apparent fourth-down recklessness in the prior encounter with the Huskies. But if Oregon can finish its first few drives in the end zone, it’s stronger defense could remove the drama.
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ACC – No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 14 Louisville
Time/TV: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC.
Why watch: The short-handed Seminoles are unquestionably the shakiest of the four remaining undefeated playoff candidates. But while the loss of standout QB Jordan Travis might have severely reduced their national championship prospects, a win in Charlotte would at least give them a chance to prove themselves in the playoff. Louisville is likely bound for the Orange Bowl win or lose thanks to last week’s setback against in-state rival Kentucky, but an ACC title would be a huge accomplishment in Jeff Brohm’s first season helming his alma mater. Now that FSU QB Tate Rodemaker has a game under his belt in which he didn’t commit any egregious errors, he might feel more comfortable airing it out for WRs Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson. RB Trey Benson came to the rescue against Florida with some huge runs, but the Seminoles will need the big-play element in their passing game, and Louisville DB Devin Neal will do his best to limit it. The Cardinals will again try to set the tone on the ground behind RBs Jawhar Jordan and Isaac Guerendo. QB Jack Plummer is still a bit too free with the ball, and Seminoles LB Kalen DeLoach will be more than happy to take it away from him.
Why it could disappoint: There are a couple of possibilities. Either the quickly revamped FSU offense will fail to launch, or the Cardinals will struggle to move the ball away from home as they’ve done on occasion this year. In any event, there might not be a whole lot of flashy plays.
Big Ten – No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 17 Iowa
Time/TV: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox.
Why watch: It might be easy to assume that the hard part for Michigan is over, having gotten through coach Jim Harbaugh’s suspension and with archrival Ohio State conquered for a third consecutive time. In Indianapolis, the Wolverines would be advised, however, not to overlook the Hawkeyes, who have overcome offensive shortcomings with stellar defense and timely plays en route to another double-digit win campaign. The Iowa defense is spearheaded by LB Jay Higgins, with an almost otherworldly 141 total tackles to his credit. He figures to be meeting Michigan RBs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards in the gaps early and often. Wolverines QB J.J. McCarthy doesn’t make many mistakes, and patience will be the key for him if the game is played at Iowa’s pace. Hawkeyes QB Deacon Hill won’t scare anyone with his passing, but RB Leshon Williams has breakaway potential if he gets free. Michigan LBs Junior Colson and Michael Barrett, however, don’t leave many spaces open.
Why it could disappoint: Let’s be honest – a couple of Michigan touchdowns will likely put this one out of reach for the offense-challenged Hawkeyes. With star DB Cooper DeJean sidelined, Iowa’s chances of generating a game-changing return are severely curtailed.
Big 12 – No. 7 Texas vs. No. 19 Oklahoma State
Time/TV: Saturday, noon ET, ABC.
Why watch: Of the five first-place finishers in the power conferences, the Longhorns are in the most ambiguous position in that a win does not automatically guarantee them a playoff spot. A loss, however, in their showdown in Arlington, Texas, would assuredly eliminate them, so the Cowboys will have their full attention. Oklahoma State’s season can best be described as irregular, with highs like the win against Oklahoma in the last scheduled Bedlam showdown and lows like embarrassing losses to South Alabama and Central Florida. The Cowboys’ place in this game wasn’t secured until last week’s double-overtime escape from Big 12 newcomer Brigham Young. Texas definitely has the flashier offense, with QB Quinn Ewers making extensive use of WRs Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell. The Cowboys’ defense has been pushed around at times, but LB Nickolas Martin is usually in the middle of things. Cowboys QB Alan Bowman isn’t quite as prolific through the air, relying instead on workhorse RB Ollie Gordon II to move the sticks and find the end zone, as he has done 21 times this season. The effort to keep Gordon bottled up will be led by Longhorns LB Jaylan Ford.
Why it could disappoint: The Longhorns’ rapid dismissal of Texas Tech in their last outing suggests they might have figured out how to play with a lead. The Cowboys have already experienced early troubles snowballing on them this season, and that could be the case here.
American – No. 24 SMU at No. 18 Tulane
Time/TV: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC.
Why watch: Despite SMU’s omission from the penultimate set of rankings from the CFP committee, this contest will more than likely determine the New Year’s Six bowl representative from the so-called group-of-five conferences. The Green Wave will be trying to accomplish the feat for a second year in succession, a remarkable achievement for the small school rich in academic tradition but less so on the gridiron. The Mustangs hope to put a last feather in their collective cap before heading off to the ACC next year. The bad news for SMU is QB Preston Stone went down with a leg injury against Navy and will not be available. Kevin Jennings will be making his first career start having attempted just 24 passes, though he has completed 18 of them with three TDs and no picks. Green Wave QB Michael Pratt has been dinged up himself at times this year but has been effective despite not taking off as much. The arrival of freshman RB Makhi Hughes to fill the considerable shoes of Tyjae Spears, now with the Tennessee Titans, has helped keep the Tulane offense humming. Takeaway threats include Tulane DB Lance Robinson and SMU DB Isaiah Nwokobia.
Why it could disappoint: The Green Wave isn’t always lights out, even when playing from ahead. But the depleted SMU offense must demonstrate some ability to move the ball quickly, as a multi-score comeback would be asking a lot.
Conference USA – New Mexico State at No. 22 Liberty
Time/TV: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, CBSSN.
Why watch: The unbeaten Flames at least have the committee’s attention with a No. 25 ranking, and they could be in line for a major bowl with a win and a Tulane loss. But first they must contend with the Aggies, who are enjoying unprecedented success at a notoriously hard place to win under second-year coach Jerry Kill. Win or lose, New Mexico State will play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1959-60. Liberty took the regular season encounter with the Aggies 33-17 way back on Sept. 9 and thus has hosting privileges for this rematch. But despite the Flames’ unblemished record, it could be argued that the Aggies actually enter with momentum on their side thanks to their impressive takedown of Auburn two weeks ago. The New Mexico State offense is directed by veteran QB Diego Pavia, who has accounted for 3,533 yards of total offense – 806 by land – and 28 total touchdowns. His primary weapons are WRs Jonathan Brady and Trent Hudson, along with RB Star Thomas. They’ll all keep LB Tyren Dupree, the leader of the Flames’ defense, busy. Liberty QB Kaidon Salter can run a bit himself with 899 ground yards and 11 scores to go with his 29 TD passes, but Quinton Cooley does most of the heavy lifting with 1,251 rushing yards and a hefty 13 TDs. They’ll have to work around top Aggies’ disruptors DL Sterling Webb and LB Keyshaun Elliott. WR C.J. Daniels is the Flames’ main aerial target with 40 catches averaging over 20 yards per grab.
Why it could disappoint: It shouldn’t, though the Aggies racked up a lot of travel miles earlier this month. The Flames might be of a mind to collect style points should they build an advantage, but it shouldn’t come to that if things are at all close by intermission.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football Week 14 games to watch with CFP implications