NCAA: Power 5 Championship Weekend Preview

It all comes down to this. With Notre Dame finishing undefeated, there are likely just three more playoff spots left, and a lot of teams are vying for them. Those spots will likely be decided by this weekend’s championship games.

ACC Championship

Clemson has predictably rolled against ACC play (save the Syracuse game), but it now faces a championship-game matchup against Pittsburgh, who beat the Tigers in 2016 and nearly derailed the Tigers’ playoff hopes en route to the 2017 national championship. But this time, that upset may not happen again.

Clemson enters the game around a 27-point favorite. And with the way last year’s ACC champs have been playing, that line looks about right. In the last three games alone, freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence has thrown for 939 yards, four TDs, and just one interception. Pitt enters the game 7-5, but three of those losses have come against top-15 teams, including a close game on the road against Notre Dame.

The Panthers love the ground game, and running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combine for over 2,000 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns on the season. They’ll likely find difficulties running the ball against Clemson, however, The Tigers rank second in the country in rush defense, allowing just 85 yards per game on the ground. In total defense, Dabo Swinney has his team seventh nationally and second in the conference behind Miami. Pittsburgh is known for breaking hearts, but it likely won’t happen Saturday. Clemson is balanced on both sides of the ball and should ensure its playoff spot at Bank of America Stadium.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Pitt 13

Big 10 Championship

The Big 10 this year has not lived up the hype of the preseason. Wisconsin, whom some projected to make the playoffs, fell remarkably short of expectations. That led to Northwestern to sneak into the playoffs despite an 8-4 record. In nonconference, the Wildcats lost to a playoff team in Notre Dame, but they also fell short to Akron and Duke at home. The Ohio State suffered controversy starting into the preseason and then had to face Urban Meyer’s four-game suspension. Then, add defensive star Nick Bosa’s injury, and you have a recipe for chaos, which it has been for the Buckeyes. But the 2015 national champs have pulled through and only have one (bad) loss to Purdue while beating top competitors like Michigan and Penn State.

There’s still a lot to play for Saturday even if the Buckeyes don’t advance to the Playoffs, leaving the Big 10 champion out for the third-straight year. The winner still gets a Rose Bowl bid. The question will be whether the Wildcats have an answer for Buckeye quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The sophomore in his first full season has carried the offense, throwing for more than 4000 yards, 42 touchdowns on just seven picks and a 69 percent completion percentage. The answer is likely no. The Buckeyes will roll and try to impress the Playoff Committee.
Prediction: Ohio State 45, Northwestern 17

Big 12 Championship

Texas beat Oklahoma once this season at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, fending off a furious comeback by the Sooners. This time, the arch-rivals will play just down the road in Arlington at AT&T Stadium. Both sides don’t need any extra motivation for this game. But Oklahoma will be fighting for its playoff life. If Alabama and Clemson win, then Oklahoma and Ohio State will likely be the two fighting for the last spot. If Georgia wins, then Alabama could send Oklahoma and Ohio State home. So the Sooners need a great performance on Saturday, especially from its defense.

The past four games the Sooners have allowed at least 40 points, including a shootout against Kansas at home. Oklahoma ranks 111th in defense, allowing 449 yards per game. But they make up for it by leading the nation in offense with 584 yards per game. With Rodney Anderson’s injury, freshman running back Kennedy Brooks has added another element to an already potent offense with nearly 1000 yards off just 103 carries. It’s hard to beat a team twice, and I think Oklahoma will get revenge and the defense will make a key stop to give the team a chance at the playoffs.                                                      Prediction: Oklahoma 55, Texas 45

Pac-12 Championship

This one likely won’t have playoff implications, but this should be a fun matchup to watch between two very good teams. Since their week-three loss to the Huskies, Utah has gone 7-2 and notched road wins over ranked teams like Stanford and Colorado.

Washington will look back on this season and ask what could have been. The Huskies have three losses on the season, two against a ranked Auburn and Oregon, by a combined 10 points. All three were either on the road or on a neutral site. Both teams have defenses ranked in the top-15 nationally.

A battle to watch in this game will be between the quarterbacks. Washington’s Jake Browning can’t seem to recreate his 43-touchdown season from 2016. In fact, the senior is on pace for his worst season statistically since his freshman year. Browning has thrown for 2,692 yards, 16 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Utah has turned to its backup quarterback, Jason Shelley after starter Tyler Huntley went down against Arizona State. Since that loss, Shelley has thrown for 624 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Oregon, Colorado, and a come-from-behind thriller against BYU. Utah has been a solid team this year, but the talent on Washington will be too much to overcome on Saturday.
Prediction: Washington 27, Utah 20

SEC Championship

Last year’s national championship has possibly turned into a de facto playoff quarterfinal. The winner is almost guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. However, if Alabama loses, they could very well take the fourth seed as they did last year when they missed the title game. For the most part, both ‘Bama and Georgia have taken care of business in the SEC. Georgia lost Sony Michel and Nick Chubb last year among other talents to the NFL, but as the season has progressed, the Bulldogs have started to look like the team of last year.

Alabama has rolled through its SEC competition, but if there’s one team that can match up to Alabama it’s Georgia. The Bulldogs from Athens rank 12th nationally in total defense. The pass defense is also top-15 in the country, which will be key if the Bulldogs want to stop the likely Heisman frontrunner, Tua Tagovailoa. The SEC East Champions need to put pressure on the Hawaiian native and not let him shred the secondary as he’s done many times this season. Alabama for the past three games against Mississippi State, the Citadel and Auburn looked vulnerable. But when the clock hits triple zeroes on Saturday, it’s hard to pick against Saban and the Tide.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Georgia 21

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